Batman, Iron Man, and a bit of Biomechanics

E. Paul Zehr
E. Paul Zehr
Professor & Director, Centre for Biomedical Research
University of Victoria


Friday, June 8
1:00-1:50 PM
Images Theatre
Simon Fraser University (Burnaby campus)



One avenue for popularizing science is to link scientific concepts to images and concepts in popular culture. Comic book superhero movies and TV shows are extremely popular and Batman and Iron Man were used as vehicles for popularizing neuroscience, physiology, and biomechanics. Through his years of rigorous training the fictional human Bruce Wayne pulled himself to near-superhuman status as Batman. This part of the Batman mythology is attractive because it seems well-grounded in the reality of hard-work and achievement—but is it really scientifically possible to train to become Batman? This is the central question of “Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008). As for Iron Man, through years of rigorous experimentation and invention the fictional genius Tony Stark created the fully articulated and animated anthropomorphic robotic suit of armor that defines Iron Man. Assuming that such a suit existed, would it actually be possible to use it without altering the human inside? What would happen if the suit was connected directly to the nervous system? These questions are the focus of “Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine” (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). Batman and Iron Man have been used to address neuromechanical concepts including: neural adaptations to skill training and motor learning; the biomechanics of martial arts training and combat;  pathophysiology of concussion; neural plasticity associated with injury and training; cortical somatosensory and motor maps and phantom limbs; and the concepts of neuroprosthetics and  brain-machine interface. This talk will explore these concepts in an accessible way aimed at the general public. Biomechanists will gain an appreciation for communicating their science in a different way by viewing it through the lens of popular culture. The general public will gain an appreciation for biomechanics by considering the science of superheroes as a common anchor point. Both groups will ponder answers to the question, is there a superhero in me?


E. Paul Zehr ( is professor of neuroscience and kinesiology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia with a research program focused on the neural control of movement and recovery of walking after stroke. He has a tremendous passion for the popularization of science and is involved in numerous outreach activities. He established the Café Scientifique public outreach program at the University of Victoria in 2008. His recent pop-sci books include “Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero (2008)” and “Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine (2011)”. “Becoming Batman” was recently translated and published in Japan as “Batman ni naru” and “Inventing Iron Man” was excerpted in Discover Magazine’s Special Issue on brain-machine interface. He has written for YES Magazine: the Science Magazine for Kids, and Flipside: The Science, Engineering, and Technology Magazine for Teenagers. Paul is also a regular speaker at conferences and comic book conventions, including the San Diego International Comic-Con which draws over 100 000 fans annually. He has been interviewed and contributed to articles on exercise, science and superheroes in Scientific American Online, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Maxim, and Popular Mechanics magazines. Paul has also been featured on National Public Radio in the USA, CBC Radio’s National Science Show “Quirks and Quarks” in Canada, CTV’s “Canada AM”, CBC TV’s “The National”, and CITY TV “Breakfast Television”. He also writes a popular neuroscience blog “Black Belt Brain” at Psychology Today.