Sunday, April 09, 2006

Superheroes rescue boring lessons

College course in California puts characters' powers to real-world tests

Los Angeles Times

IRVINE, CALIF. - Could an overdose of gamma rays really transform someone into the Incredible Hulk? Was Superman defying Einstein's theory of relativity when he flew faster than the speed of light?

While other science classes at the University of California at Irvine dissect sharks or explore plasma physics, Michael Dennin's seminar analyzes comic-book superpowers.

In recent weeks, students in his Science of Superheroes course have investigated Batman's utility belt, pondered gravity on the planet Krypton and designed their own superpower concepts using existing or envisioned technology.

The 10-week class is part of a program to expose freshmen to unfamiliar topics and majors. Dennin debuted the course in January as an expanded version of a "physics of Superman" lecture he had given to several campus groups.

From Aquaman to X-Men
After one Man of Steel talk, somebody slipped him a copy of Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg's paperback, The Science of Superheroes.

It became the textbook for his new class.

In lessons that cover Aquaman to X-Men, Dennin's 14 students learned to distinguish science fiction from science fact.

Dennin, 39, a UCI physics professor, said the goal of the seminar is to use pop culture as a hook to introduce such concepts as black holes, cloning, life on other planets, quantum mechanics and Newtonian physics.

"Many students have a fear of science," Dennin said, "but if they come at it from a different angle, they sometimes find out they're interested in the subject and take more classes."

In one of the course's final projects, students had to cook up a technologically realistic superpower.

Student theories
Amy McSherley devised an elaborate PowerPoint presentation on her character Shiki, a ninja superhero who turns invisible by wearing an "optical camouflage suit" covered with liquid crystal display screens and tiny video cameras.

The cameras film whatever is behind Shiki and pipe the images to the fabric's TV screens so the suit appears transparent, McSherley said.

The only drawback is that sunlight would reflect off the LCD screens the same way it does off a TV set, she added.

Another classroom super character, dubbed Average Joe, achieves superhuman strength by wearing an exoskeleton powered by hydrogen fuel.

Nathan Yee, 19, one of Average Joe's creators, said Dennin's class is lighthearted but educational.

"Hearing about things that you think would be inconceivable but are technologically possible is quite remarkable," he said. "It's a very interesting class."

Dennin said he hoped students would apply the techniques they used to analyze comic-book powers to evaluate the credibility of real-life medical and scientific claims.

"One of my big passions is the challenge of educating the nonscientific public about the process of science," he said. "It's becoming more and more critical in today's world."

Dennin said the seminar taught him a few things, too. "The students knew a lot more about superheroes than I did."

Other classes
Dennin's class isn't the only freshman seminar with an eye-catching title.

Other courses in UCI's program include:

•Heavy Metal Islam, from the history department.
•Murder!, from the drama department.
•TV, Culture and the Real O.C., from women's studies.
•Antonio Banderas and His Hispanic Masculinities, from the Spanish department.

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