Communicating physiology to the general public and popularizing science can be tremendously rewarding activities. Providing relevant and compelling points of linkage, however, between the scientific experiences and the interests of the general public can be challenging. One avenue for popularizing science is to link scientific concepts to images, personalities, and icons in popular culture. Currently, comic book superhero movies and television shows are extremely popular, and Batman was used as the vehicle for popularizing concepts of exercise science, neuroscience, and physiology in my recent book, Becoming Batman: the Possibility of a Superhero. The objective of this book was to bring scientific understanding to the broader public by using the physical image and impression everyone has of Batman and his abilities and then connecting this to the underlying science. The objective of this article is to share some of the details of the process and the positive and negative outcomes of using such an approach with other academics who may be interested in similar activities. It is my goal that by sharing this experience I may stimulate like-minded readers to initiate their own similar projects and to also be emboldened to try and integrate popular culture touchstones in their own teaching practice.
- public education
- knowledge translation
communicating physiology to the general public and popularizing science can be tremendously rewarding activities. Providing relevant and compelling points of linkage, however, between the scientific experiences and the interests of the general public can be challenging. One avenue for popularizing science is to link scientific concepts to images, personalities, and icons in popular culture. Currently, comic book superhero movies and television shows are extremely popular, and Batman was used as the vehicle for popularizing concepts of exercise science, neuroscience, and physiology in my recent book, Becoming Batman: the Possibility of a Superhero (3). When I was considering my approach to the book, I was trying to balance my passion for the popularization of science with a useful metaphor that could be used to disseminate information most effectively to the general public. I believe quite strongly in leaving the walls of the “ivory tower” and connecting and communicating with the general public in comfortable and informal settings. These comfortable and informal settings can be literally physical spaces in the community, like coffee shops or pubs, where Café Scientifique discussions can occur. They can also be mental settings representing concepts that people are already familiar with and comfortable thinking about. I think scientists and academics have to go the extra mile to translate science into terms that are interesting and accessible to the general public and nonacademic specialists. I have a background in kinesiology (BPE and MSc) and neuroscience (PhD), many years training in martial arts, and an interest in comic books. Batman is the most highly trained and skilled martial arts in the DC Universe, and he is also considered a master detective and scientist. I read a lot of general science books in different fields and particularly inspirational to me was The Physics of Superheroes (1), by University of Minnesota Physics professor Dr. James Kakalios. I have long noticed an absence in this genre of books related to how the human body functions. I decided to write something about how the body works and responds to exercise and motor skill training using Batman as the metaphor for ultimate human performance. His fictional physiology can rightly be thought to represent the most highly tuned of any human athlete. A main part of Batman's mystique is that he is pitched as a human being who is “self-made.” Thus, I thought exploring, examining, and challenging the actual scientific background and basis for extreme physiological adaptation embodied in Batman could be a useful way to meet my objectives. Batman is widely known throughout the world, and even people who have no real interest in comic books or superheroes have a vivid image of his physical and performance abilities. Batman is also an enduring icon, first appearing in the 1939 story “The Case of the Chemical Syndicate,” found in the pages of the National Publications (which became DC Comics) magazine Detective Comics #27. Since that time, Batman has become the global icon we recognize today.
Batman has such powerful resonance with readers because he is a (fictional) human with superpowers that seem within reach if we only work at it. Many artists, editors, and writers have mentioned this (2). Former President and Editor-in-Chief of DC Comics Jenette Kahn has said that “Batman is an ordinary mortal who made himself a superhero … Through discipline and determination and commitment, he made himself into the best. I always thought that meant that I could be anything I wanted to be.” Neal Adams, a great “Silver Age” Batman artist, wrote that “You must remember, Batman is the only superhero who is not a superhero. He has no powers … He's a human being bent on a mission.” Finally, former DC Comics Editor and writer Dennis O'Neil clearly articulated this when he stated:
“There isn't a great stretch between Batman's world and ours: he is the most ‘realistic’ of the great superheroes. To be blunt: the guy isn't very super. He didn't gain his powers by being lightning-struck, nor bathing in chemicals, nor by dint of being born on another planet, nor by the intervention of extraterrestrials or gods. To paraphrase an old commercial, he got them the old-fashioned way–he earned them … He wasn't bequeathed those abilities; he sweated for them.”
Clearly, Batman is well suited to serve as a foil for exploring and revealing the processes of human physiology related to training and adaptation.
Overall Approach: What I Actually Did
The basic approach I took was to analyze what was really encapsulated in the concept of Batman and explain the scientific background related to genetics, biomechanics, psychology, neuroscience, exercise physiology, and pathology needed to understand what would or would not be possible. Essentially, I did an occupational assessment of what Batman represents in terms of skills, abilities, and demands related to real occupations and activities. This revealed that Batman is a combination martial artist, acrobatic gymnast, police officer, firefighter, NASCAR driver, NFL running back, and all-around ultimate athlete. He needs all the skills and abilities of people in these activities and occupations and is also subjected to all the stresses and side effects of working in all these fields. The point of doing this was to establish a framework (grounded in his fictional universe as well as our real one) upon which I could discuss and analyze Batman. I then addressed the various components of exercise and physical training needed to gain these skills and abilities by illustrating how physiological systems respond to exercise and training stresses. The main physiology concepts are couched in terms of how the exercise training Batman must experience all represent challenges to homeostasis in the tradition of Claude Bernard, Walter Cannon, and Hans Selye. The main points to be gleaned from this approach were that, given the correct blend of genetic endowment, money, time, training opportunities, and mentors, and the necessary drive to sustain the effort, becoming Batman is a possibility. Not a very high probability, but a possibility nonetheless. As such, the real message, as I summarized, was that Batman's story can help anyone appreciate their own bodily functions and their own physiology.
It is interesting to reflect upon this process and realize that this effort was born from my experiences in teaching undergraduate courses in physiology and neurophysiology. I have always had an eye out for engaging science concepts accidentally captured in popular culture. When I first started working as an assistant professor, I routinely used small videoclips from the Fox Television show “The Simpsons” to illustrate physiological function. In fact, it was usually problems with the function of the many and various systems in Homer Simpson's physiology that were the focus. I noted from these experiences that students were very engaged in the material and drawn in by the popular culture references. When teaching an upper-level course in neural control of movement, I always use a videoclip from the Marvel “Spider-Man 2” movie to illustrate the brain-machine interface. After showing the movie version of what a brain-machine interface could look like in the shape of “Dr. Octopus,” we then discuss real-life examples. It has been a very productive and illuminating experience.
What Happened When I Did What I Did: The (Mostly) Good, The (Only A Bit) Bad, And The (Teeny Bit) Ugly
Going forward with this project I thought that it had the potential to generate considerable interest with the general public. This was largely because during the process of writing Becoming Batman it became clear that what I was working on was the one major gap in the entire Batman mythology. That is, many comic books, graphic novels, movies, and scholarly tomes had been written about Batman, his relevance, his gadgetry, his humanity. However, the issue of whether it was actually feasible to achieve the process of becoming Batman–that part of Batman that makes him so accessible and intriguing to so many–had, for whatever reason, never really been addressed. It was in the media attention afforded my book that the “good, the bad, and the ugly” indicated above could actually be found.
Interestingly, even before my book was published in late fall of 2008, it generated significant media interest. In June of 2008, a reporter for Scientific American online was seeking a scientific angle on Batman to write a story timed for the North American release of “The Dark Knight.” At that time, the book was still in copy editing with Johns Hopkins University Press, and the reporter contacted me about getting a copy for review. Since that wasn't possible, we instead did an interview about the book and the concept of the science behind Batman's training. This article was published on Monday, July 14, 2008, with “The Dark Knight” coming out on the following Friday. Within 2 days, over 200,000 page hits on the interview were recorded, and the article eventually became the most read (in terms of page hits) article on Scientific American online for all of 2008. This interview spawned media interest around the globe and subsequently lead to almost 100 print, radio, television, and podcast interviews. I will return to both the good and the bad of this explosion of media interest below as it has considerable bearing on my overall view of the whole experience.
I called this section “the good, the bad, and the ugly,” but I prefer to first outline some of the bad and the ugly and finish off with the good. I have worked at the leading edge of my research field for almost 20 years. During that time, I have published more than 70 scientific papers, hundreds of abstracts, and have received millions of dollars in research funding. I mention this because all of those activities have meant that I have been well and truly exposed to the process of scientific peer review and all the heavy criticism that entails. Additionally, I regularly review grants for Canadian, American, and other international funding agencies as well as manuscripts for the leading publications in my field. I have, therefore, considerable experience in both giving and receiving critical analysis, and, as an academic, I consider myself fairly “acclimated” to the whole environment of our industry. I have grown accustomed to receiving both positive and negative commentary on my conducted or proposed work. In the academic sphere, however, feedback from these activities typically arrives in fairly impersonal and discreet e-mails, faxes, or letters. If the information is posted to the web, it is typically seen as a list of successful applicants or awardees, not a list of those who did not get funding, and the actual critique of the work is typically not simultaneously available. Thus, at no time in any of my research or scholarly activities had I ever received immediate feedback on my work that was posted on an open internet blog post. That all changed with the project I am describing here.
I was in for quite a surprise when that first bit of media coverage in the form of the Scientific American online interview was published. I did not know that there would be an open blog immediately below my interview. I since learned that this is in fact common for almost all such interviews nowadays. So, there I was on Monday, July 14, 2008, reading my interview (and thinking that the writer had done a very good job) and feeling pleased with the process so far. Then I saw the blog. The very first response (posted even before I had a chance to read the interview) was by “candide08” at 09:09 AM EST. S/he wrote “Articles like this are why many people have no respect for science.” “Interesting critical reflection,” I thought. Actually, that is not what I thought, but I prefer the sarcasm. Interestingly, this was rebutted almost immediately with a comment by “Audrey” on the same blog:
“Way to expand the scientific creativity with this article. Thinking beyond the normal scheme of general scientific topics (outside the box), even if it may be far fetched, is a terrific way to cultivate new ideas. If there's bona fide research going into an idea I don't see why it can't be shared.”
While those posts are examples of both the bad and the ugly, they were fairly quickly rebutted by other readers. This was also interesting as an example of self-regulating correction to online comments that can be found on many blogs. Other examples of “the good” commentary include Annalee Newitz on the blog “i09–Strung Out on Science Fiction.” She wrote:
“A neuroscientist who studies muscular movement–and a serious Batman fan–Zehr answers definitively whether a real human being could become Batman just through physical training. He asks weird questions you never thought about, such as what Batman's range of motion might be, how fast he could throw punches, and what kinds of spinal damage he might sustain from injuries he gets in the comics. There is really nothing more awesome than reading a book that cites obscure neuroscience journals in the same sentence with citations to obscure Batman comics. Becoming Batman is a terrific introduction to the science of kinesiology (movement), and a fun way to learn more how much we can change our capabilities through physical training alone.”
In sum, the negative–the bad and the ugly comments–have been far outnumbered by the positive experiences and the good comments and commentary. In statistical parlance, the negative comments and arm chair musings are P < 0.01 or probably more like P < 0.001. On balance, therefore, despite that overall my experience has been overwhelmingly positive, it bears noting that we need to be aware of this kind of public scrutiny and public criticism that goes well beyond what we normally experience.
Unexpected Outcomes …
One unanticipated “side effect” of writing Becoming Batman was the clarity of thinking that it brought to my “normal” science. Trying to write a general science book requires continuously trying to think with the “big picture” view and themes and subthemes firmly in mind at all times. While many different aspects of science are covered in the book, my own research is heavily focused on neuroscience and human neurophysiology, specifically. For many years in my laboratory, we have been pursuing projects related to understanding how the movements of the arms and legs during walking are controlled by the spinal cord. Much of this work has focused on mechanistic and functional questions of how, what, and when but very little on the evolutionary implications of these connections. That is, until I began to spend so much time thinking through bigger picture issues with Becoming Batman. I found that my mind was now much more open to thinking about the broader context of the comparative biology of arm and leg linkages in humans. This brought to the forefront a very evolutionary perspective in my work and a short opinion-based review on the similarity of interlimb neural connections during cat, human, and other primate locomotion (4). This has been a very fruitful addition to our other research work, and I am convinced that it was made possible by the state of mind I was in while simultaneously writing the Becoming Batman book.
Becoming Batman was originally written as a way to disseminate physiology to the general public. I had not thought much about the potential use in conventional education. Recently, it has been used as an educational tool. A middle school teacher in San Francisco, CA, is using the book as the text for her grade 7 biology course. Also, the University of Michigan offered in 2010 a freshman seminar called “The Movement Science of Batman” using my book as the course text. It now seems obvious to me that these kinds of efforts can be useful in many different spheres.
Finale and Summary
There are many boons to doing this extra work aimed at public outreach and civic engagement, but there are also some negatives. All academic research outputs eventually find their way into the public domain. The profile that an activity like this carries in the public domain is much higher and much more freely accessible to commentary and “analysis”–however superficial this may be at times. I have published many scientific papers in high-profile journals in my field. Some of these papers have generated significant print, radio, and television media coverage. However, not in the same way as has writing Becoming Batman. As I mentioned above, I used the pop culture icon of Batman to explore the metaphor of ultimate human performance. This works because almost everyone has an impression of the physical capabilities of Batman. However, the flipside of this is that sometimes such attempts can be misunderstood or trivialized, or challenged, in a very public way. Indeed, working with a pop culture icon to help deliver a message means you are messing with a pop culture icon. In many ways, this can be positive, as it enhances the understanding others may have, but it also means you are altering people's perceptions, and they may not want that. In closing, I recommend highly for other academics who are interested in following a similar path to please follow your inclination. Please don't be dissuaded by the challenges, including the public scrutiny. In the main, your efforts will be supported. Taken on balance, I would do it all over again. In fact, the best testament to this is that I have done it all over again. This year, I wrote my second book in this genre, “Inventing Iron Man: the Possibility of a Human Machine” (5), which will be published in mid-2011.
No conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise, are declared by the author.
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