Except for the cybernetic helmet, the film is more fantasy than physics
By James Kakalios
Physics professor James Kakalios says Iron Man's suit defies physics, except for the cybernetic helmet.
May 2, 2008; updated May 14, 2008
Editor's note: Iron Man opened in cinemas on May 2, and after only two weekends in theaters, the movie about a comic book hero in a high-tech suit of armor has grossed about $177 million in box office sales, according to studio estimates. To watch a preview of Iron Man, see the official Web site.
"To those trapped within unresponsive bodies, the development of a device that could 'read their thoughts' would trump the wildest adventures in any superhero story."Even assuming that Iron Man can convert any stored energy in his suit into laser light with 100 percent efficiency, generating a beam powerful enough to melt a fist-sized hole through a half-inch-thick steel plate (which any comic book fan can tell you is well within Shellhead's capabilities) would require an energy pulse of over two gigawatts of power, greater than the output of a nuclear power plant. Cybernetic helmet. There is one aspect of Iron Man's armor that not only is scientifically sound, but may be available for our use someday soon: the "cybernetic helmet" Tony Stark uses to control the devices within his armor. When Iron Man wants to discharge his palm-mounted repulsor rays, he does not have to manually release a safety switch, enter a firing sequence code, or even pull a trigger--he just tells the supervillain to "talk to the hand" and fires. In fact, Bin He of the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Minnesota already has created a helmet much like Iron Man's. It works on the principle that neurons' electrical currents create electric and magnetic fields, which can be detected with devices such as the electroencephalograph (EEG). While the EEG has been around since the 1920's, recent advances in signal processing have enabled scientists to isolate and identify the firing signatures of neurons associated with particular motor imagery tasks. He identified the specific firing pattern that arises when a person, watching images on a computer monitor, tries to mentally move a cursor to the left or right. These detected frequencies can then be amplified and, when suitably modified, can instruct the computer to move the cursor in the same direction. Of course, He is not interested in developing control helmets for crime-fighting superheroes, but hopes to develop devices that will enable people with paralyzing injuries to communicate more easily, or eventually to activate artificial limbs and prosthetic devices. To those trapped within unresponsive bodies, the development of a device that could "read their thoughts" would trump the wildest adventures in any superhero story. James Kakalios is a professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota and author of The Physics of Superheroes (Gotham, 2005).
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Last modified on March 9, 2009