Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Zero to hero: Scientist could turn you into Batman

Holy microscopes! A real-life scientist has worked out exactly what it would take to turn any of us into Batman. Simon Usborne reveals his formula

Wednesday, 30 July 2008


Your Average 'Batman'


Christian Bale as Batman
Swooping through Gotham with more gadgets than 007 while beating bad guys to a pulp and receiving the adulation of the masses – who wouldn't want to be Batman? But who could be? He's got the martial arts moves of Bruce Lee, the driving skills of Lewis Hamilton, the stamina of Paula Radcliffe, the strength of Charles Atlas and the detective powers of Columbo. Surely no mere mortal could combine these abilities and keep the streets of Gotham free from crime?

One man thinks it might just be possible. Dr E Paul Zehr, a professor of kinesiology and neuroscience who is also a martial arts expert, has dissected the Dark Knight in a book to be published later this year. In Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero, Zehr, who works at the University of Victoria in Canada, shows the kind of training Bruce Wayne or any other mortal would have to put themselves through to become the caped crusader.

"What makes Batman such a great superhero is that he is a man without any super powers," Zehr says. "He wasn't born on another planet or bitten by a mutant spider; he just has a lot of money and a lot of skill. But nobody has evaluated whether it is feasible to be Batman – I wanted to look at it scientifically and come up with the answer."

Zehr's feasibility study involved trawling his collection of comics – he is a life-long Batman fan who used to dress up as the superhero when he was a child – and applying his knowledge of the brain, the body and his own fighting skills. He reckons it would take 15 to 20 years to fit in all the training required, ideally starting in childhood.

Zehr admits it would be "extremely difficult" to get anywhere near Batman's level but, he says: "Given what we know about the body and the brain I do believe it is possible."


Batman can have all the money, gadgets and kick-ass moves he likes but if he's going to keep Gotham free of crime there's one muscle that needs to be as well honed as his quads and abs: his brain. "Apart from anything he's the world's greatest detective and you've got to have intelligence for that," Zehr says. And then there's what Zehr calls "body sense" – the ability to perceive and produce movement. "It's something that highly trained athletes have in sports that combine powerful movement and fine control – martial arts and gymnastics are good examples," Zehr says. "There's a scene in one graphic novel where Batman has to defend people in an orchestra pit at the opera. He's still able to use his fine body sense to filter out the distractions and save the day. It takes years to get your motor skills that well tuned, but it's definitely possible."


The Bat-eyes have to be rather better than a real bat's. "He needs to extract important visual information more quickly than an untrained person," Zehr explains. "He needs to combine the visual skills of a well-trained detective, who can get a glimpse of something at a crime scene and remember all the detail, and a footballer, who moves quickly and has to make quick decisions in a dynamic environment." A cross between Wayne Rooney and Inspector Morse, then. It also means Batman has constantly to be aware of what is happening in his periphery. Humans have a very narrow field of vision but there are exercises designed to improve it. Try holding out your arms in front of you and staring at an object between your outstretched index fingers. See how long you can focus on the object and your fingers as you separate your arms.


Batman's a busy guy but, like Jack Bauer of 24 fame, when do you ever see our hero munching on Kit-Kat? One eating scene appears in Batman Begins, when Alfred serves a bruised Bruce a mysterious green smoothie. Zehr says: "I reckon he would need to eat 60 per cent carbohydrates, 25 per cent protein and 15 per cent fat. To do everything Batman has to do, he would need to take 4,000 calories a day – almost double the average for a man." So, lots of pasta and biscuits? "Yeah, he wouldn't need a crazy diet."


As Christian Bale showed in the film Batman Begins, you have to be buff to be Batman – that suit won't fill itself. The problem is, he has to be as agile as he is powerful. "In reality you just can't have both," Zehr says. "Batman has to be somewhere in between – really good at everything but not the best at anything – except being Batman." To get clues about Batman's bodybuilding, Zehr trawled his comics collection. "The first description appears in 1939, when Batman was seen wearing shorts holding an enormous bar bell over his head. That's how he was supposed to become Batman, but strength training wouldn't be enough. His training would have to be even more varied than a decathlete's."


Becoming Batman is a tall order but just how big is the caped crusader? The five men who have played him on the big screen (West, Keaton, Kilmer, Clooney and Bale) have ranged from a measly 5 foot 10 inches (Keaton) to a lofty 6 foot 2 inches (West). By searching the comics and all the literature in a field that might be called Batmanology, Zehr has put the height of the real superhero at 6 foot 2. By the time he has become Batman, Wayne tops the scales at 95 kilograms (15 stone) compared to 84 kilograms (a tad over 13 stone) before the "batplan" training regimen.

Body clock

Billionaire playboys like Bruce Wayne might be more nocturnal than average people but it's not natural for humans to work nights. "Batman is in an almost permanent state of jet lag because he's always out at night," Zehr says. "As anyone who has flown knows, jet lag affects our performance because our bodies work according to certain rhythms. For Batman to be at his best he would have to tailor his whole schedule or be constantly exhausted. The level of light reduction he would need in the day to allow him to sleep normally then would be like wearing a welder's mask. It's a pretty extreme existence but, again, it's possible."


You might think that when you stop growing your bones are set like a bicycle frame, destined only to weaken and go creaky with age. Not so. "When you do any activity your body adapts and your skeleton is no different," Zehr explains. "Say you want to train for a marathon but have never really run before. As you start pounding the pavement your bone tissues are experiencing mechanical loads they are not used to. This stress causes your bones to remodel and lay down new minerals to become stronger." Batman uses this ability to give him a bigger punch. "He would do this by hitting objects such as a wooden striking post used in martial arts." But Zehr warns wannabes against swapping punch bags for oak trees. "That's going to hurt," he says.


Batman's striking outfit, developed then ditched by Wayne Industries as military combat armour, is the most important piece of his crime fighting equipment. But how much protection could bullet and stab-proof "hardened Kevlar plates of titanium-dipped tri-weave fibres" offer? "The problem is that, however protective the suit is, the energy of a bullet or a hit still has to go through," Zehr says. "I've seen chainmail suits used by divers where shark bites haven't punctured the skin yet the whole arm gets crushed." Batman's most-vulnerable body part is his head and Zehr says one of the biggest stumbling blocks on the way to becoming Batman would be surviving the knocks he takes. Zehr says. "However good his helmet is, a big jolt is going to cause concussion or worse." A real life Batman would have to be quick enough to avoid a good hiding.


The "memory cloth" used to create Batman's cape, which stiffens into a glider when an electric current runs through it, is a Hollywood fabrication but experts believe similar materials aren't far off. Several armed forces are developing body armour that uses magnetorheological fluid. Essentially iron fillings mixed with oil, the fluids behave like a liquid until a magnetic field is applied, when the fluids become solid. Whether Batman could then control a cape to swoop from one of Gotham's skyscrapers is another matter, though base jumpers using special wing suits have shown that unassisted human flight is possible.

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