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Science Lessons from…Spiderman

In years gone by, the only scientifically verifiable fact that audiences could take away from the Spiderman franchise was that the man in question does, indeed, do whatever a spider can. But those unenlightened days are a thing of the past, thanks to recent research by a group of students from the UK.

In 2004’s Spiderman 2, the man of the hour must stop a runaway train before it launches itself off the end of the track. He does so by positioning himself at the front of the train, and shooting webs towards surrounding buildings, slowing down and eventually stopping the train.

It seems like movie magic, but three physics students from the University of Leicester found in October last year that the science is solid.

The paper, published in the University’s Journal of Physics Special Topics, modeled the forces acting on the webbing in such a situation. After working out the approximate weight and speed of the train, the students calculated that a force of 300,000 newtons would be needed to halt the momentum of the train (NB: that’s a lot). This meant that every cubic metre of Spidey’s silk would need to be able to absorb close to 500 million joules to avoid snapping.

Incredibly, there are spiders that have silk capable of these feats (albeit on a much smaller scale). The group found that the toughness required was in line with the values of the Darwin’s Bark Spider’s silk, an orb-weaving spider with the strongest known webbing of any spider arachnid – 10 times stronger than Kevlar, a material commonly used for ballistic vests and helmets.

“It is often quoted that spider webs are stronger than steel, so we thought it would be interesting to see whether this held true for Spiderman’s scaled up version”, said one of the scientists, Alex Stone, 21, in a press release. “Considering the subject matter, we were surprised to find out that the webbing was portrayed accurately.”

So while this research may not have too many practical applications in a city where the trains rarely seem to turn up at all; may it incite some more respect for our well-meaning arachnid friends. And as always, it’s good to know that there are scientists out there in the world, slaving away in their labs, fighting the good fight for truth in science fiction.

About Nicola McCaskill

Hello! My name is Nicola McCaskill, and this year I am a third year Arts/Science student, majoring in Immunology, Journalism and Film/TV. I’m passionate about improving science literacy and increasing the visibility of women in the field, and am excited to have the opportunity to work on the science section of Lot’s Wife this year.

Nicola McCaskill

The author Nicola McCaskill

Hello! My name is Nicola McCaskill, and this year I am a third year Arts/Science student, majoring in Immunology, Journalism and Film/TV. I’m passionate about improving science literacy and increasing the visibility of women in the field, and am excited to have the opportunity to work on the science section of Lot’s Wife this year.

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