Stranger than fiction

Shreya Kulkarni 22 April 2015

My adoration of Disney-esque ‘good-triumphing-over-evil’ endings to films coupled with growing up with two brothers who enjoyed fighting probably makes my love of Marvel seem somewhat inevitable. More surprising, however, are the success stories of recent box office smashes: Avengers Assemble, Thor 2 and the epic Iron Man 3 to name but a few, all of which originate from the fictitious Marvel universe. It would seem that I am not the only fan, as Avengers Assemble and Iron Man 3 became the third and fifth top-grossing films of all time. Admittedly, as a fan I would probably be expected to give such films high praise, but honestly, the appeal is pretty clear even to those who aren’t as erm, ‘enthusiastic’ as me. We are all too aware of things like terrorist threats, possible nuclear warfare and celebrity mobile phone hacking. Films such as Iron Man play into these fears but promote over-arching themes of justice prevailing in the end and the fact that the heroes always have quirks which are celebrated rather than ridiculed, can only be a plus, especially for fans who feel socially isolated due to their different talents. The titular character of the Percy Jackson franchise is shown to have ADHD (which turns out to be great for battle) and dyslexia (due to being more familiar with understanding Ancient Greek) is one such example. Such films can seem so real that the lines between science-fiction and reality can often feel blurred, almost like it could happen to us…

Super-strength : Wrestling polar bears

In 2006, Lydia Angyiou witnessed her son being approached by a dangerous polar bear. Without hesitation, the mother began wrestling with it in order to ensure her son’s safety. She managed to maintain the fight before the polar bear was eventually shot dead. Such feats of bravery and adrenaline-fuelled athleticism are obviously rare but the fact that they do occur is always astounding. One explanation that neuroscientists have given for such ‘super-human strength’ is that in emergency situations, fear unlocks our energy reserves and analgesia (the inability to feel pain) takes hold. However, physiologists and sports scientists who are familiar with the concepts of strength training argue that this is not unlimited; they assert that those who engage in such behaviour are usually of a strong build anyway, however, more scientific proof is needed in order to gain a better understanding of this strange phenomenon.

Super-human memory  : ‘Brainman’

Brainman – a clever pun on Rainman (and who doesn’t love a good pun?) – refers to Daniel Tammet, a real-life hero with an extraordinary super-human ability to remember large quantities of information. In a documentary by the same name (involving internationally-renowned autism researcher Professor Simon Baron-Cohen) Brainman aka Tammet proved that he could recall Pi to 22,000 decimal places. He also learnt Icelandic in a mere four days, before going on to an Icelandic talk show and conversing like a local. If that doesn’t impress you, I don’t know what will! Tammet has synaesthesia meaning that he doesn’t just see colours or numbers, he experiences them. He also has Autism Spectrum Disorder, a feature of which is intense interests and the ability to process in a very specific and focussed way (note the word ability as opposed to disability here, the guy learnt Icelandic in four days and I’m still not over it). The most moving part of Tammet’s story is not too dissimilar to the protagonists of our much-loved superhero films, he is now not only super-human, but super in his personal life too, reportedly in a long-term relationship with somebody he connected with via the internet.

Object powers : The Titan Arm

The Titan Arm is a robotic arm created by mechanical engineering students from the University of Pennsylvania. It is an object which can increase upper body strength by an impressive 40lbs.The invention may not be able to blast away those arch-enemies that take your spot in the library or destroy an army of aliens, but it did win the 2013 James Dyson Award. This is a design award which praises innovative ideas which are cost-effective to produce – so I guess that’s something. 3D printing has led to a revolution of being able to create human-enhancing products such as this, but some say that our quest to be super-human will bring about new ethical, legal and social dilemmas (Lin, 2007).

“Man is the only creature that refuses to be what he is” (Camus, 1951)

As mentioned previously, what we once thought was science fiction is now being invented. We take it all for granted so much that it’s difficult to imagine life pre-GPS. What about a world where I’d actually have to hold the phone when enjoying a long conversation with my other half, if Bluetooth headsets hadn’t been invented? It’s too upsetting to think about to be honest. One such innovative technology being developed is a touch display which would be implanted beneath the skin allowing specialised tattoo ink to form numbers (Mielke, 2008).

However, some worry that such technologies designed to solve our problems, may actually create their own. For example, there is the concern that we will slowly become more and more bionic, being able to print our own organs, and maybe even achieve invincibility or if not, then at least be able to live a lot longer than currently possible. But perhaps long life will not be how we imagine it to be. Some say that boredom and increased risk of mental health problems once we have achieved our lifetime ambitions may become a social problem and affect how we see ourselves, our ‘human dignity’ (President’s Council on Bioethics, 2003).

There is also the question of the human ethics involved in creating super-soldiers in warfare. Doing so would help us overcome our species’ vulnerabilities to lack of sleep, lack of light, lack of food, lack of oxygen, oh, we’re so needy… I could see that there would be some support perhaps from families wanting to do anything to protect their loved ones who go on the front line, but I could also see those who would object to it as they may see it as a descent into us as a species desensitizing ourselves to our own human fragility. For those who aren’t opposed, it is thought that nature may hold the biological blueprints to finding the mechanisms to making our species ‘stronger’. For example, we know that snow dogs can run for days without food and water and it is well-known that certain fish do not sleep or they would drown. So should we keep searching for ways to become super-human or are some things left better to the imagination?