Creating Spider-Man: The science behind vertical mobility

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Even after the literary success of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, “learned” folk would disparage and belittle the work of writers who dared imagine the scientific and technological possibilities of the future. And despite the philosophical depth of science fiction, critics still felt it necessary to relegate these works to the status of the dime-store novel , a genre pursued by the literary hack for nothing more than the amusement of starry-eyed, prepubescent children. In contrast, and a century later, the predictions of many sci-fi writers from the past and present are being vindicated and proven prescient by researchers, engineers, and scientists around the world.

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Created by comic book creator and legend Stan Lee in the 1960s, Spider-Man captivated the imagination of millions of teenage boys who identified with the orphan-turned-superhero Peter Parker. When danger loomed, it was up to Spider-Man to use his web-spouting wrists and spider-like ability to crawl across any surface, giving him the edge over many of his enemies. And it is this latter quality, the ability to crawl vertically along the sides of buildings and walls, that modern science is learning to emulate.

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Carlo Menon, associate professor of engineering at Simon Fraser University in Canada, has developed a robot that can climb vertical surfaces. The robotic feet Menon has created does not rely on adhesives, but was designed to mimic the grip of a gecko’s foot. Covered with thin, hair-like strands called setae, which are in turn covered by even thinner strands called spatulae, a gecko’s foot is able to maintain traction on almost any vertical surface, even keeping itself standing upside down thanks to its reliance on the Van der Waals force, a molecular phenomenon of attraction that occurs when two atoms are in close contact.

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The robotic gecko feet that Menon has created is being considered for use in space by the¬†European Space Agency; the ability to send tiny repair bots along the surface of a spacecraft’s hull to fix an outside component has far reaching implications for the safety of astronauts, who often put their lives at risk when they have to enter deep space to diagnose an outside issue.

Although this is great news for astronauts seeking safety, this technology will be applied to fulfill a variety of tasks only science fiction writers, and their scientific and engineering colleagues, can predict.

About Author

Kristian strives to enlighten and entertain readers. In addition to his teaching and editorial responsibilities, he is working on a science-fiction novel that promises not to include exoskeleton suits and anemic aliens floating in mysterious vats of green-tinted goop.

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