Iron Man: The science behind the fiction
01 May 2008
NewScientist.com news service
Celeste Biever and Rowan Hooper First, there is the hero himself, Tony Stark, a scientific genius who for once is not the timid or bespectacled geek we are used to in Hollywood, but is charismatic, confident, and a hit with the ladies.
Stark is played by Robert Downey Jr, and we think he deserves to go in any list of the top 10 coolest fictional scientists
But it is the technology that Stark uses to turn himself into Iron Man that gets us going. The tech in the movie is probably more firmly rooted in reality more than you might think – unless, that is, you are a regular New Scientist reader.
We have spotted at least five classes of tech in the movie that we have written about before. So, for those keen to find more about the real science behind the fictional Iron Man, read on…Superhero skin
Stark is a brilliant engineer who has made billions from building weapons. Kidnapped in Afghanistan, he questions his life, and resolves to put his genius to better use: to protecting rather than destroying. To that end, he builds himself a suit of armour that gives him superhuman powers. Watch a short excerpt from the film showing the suit's capabilities
No such suit exists – yet. The leg sections of a wearable exoskeleton have been built, however.
This contraption does not yet give the wearer added strength, but it does make the backpack they are carrying feel lighter, by transferring its weight to the ground. This can makes a 36-kilogram (79-pound) load feel about 80% lighter. Other teams are building similar suits.Flying machines
Of course, the coolest thing about Stark's suit is not its strength but its ability to fly. In the film, Stark zooms to Afghanistan, just in the nick of time to stop warlords killing a group of poor villagers.
It couldn't reach Afghanistan, perhaps, but SoloTrek was a flying exoskeleton that was apparently capable of travelling more than 200 kilometres. (The project shut down after a crash in 2002.)
Danger and possible financial ruin hasn't put everyone off. UK inventor and pilot Stuart Ross reckons his Rocketbelt packs enough power to lift him 2500 metres in the air and plans to test fly the latest model this year.Friendly bots
In the movie, Stark has a friendly robot to help him build his armour. It looks too clever to be true, but in fact it is highly reminiscent of AUR. Built last year by MIT scientists, AUR is a robotic desk lamp that calculates where you are looking and moves its flexible neck to shine light on that spot.
And while Stark's robotic helper doesn't always correctly guess what he wants, as real-world software grows evermore sophisticated, it too is making the same mistakes humans do.
In the great tradition of robots in movies, Stark forms emotional bonds with his. At one point, his assistant Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) catches him in what looks like a compromising position with his robots ("Let's face it, this isn't the worst thing you've walked in on me doing," says Stark).
Will humans and robots ever have relationships like this? It's certainly something NASA is trying to figure out. Should robots be better tools or better teammates?
Owners of the robotic vacuum cleaner Roomba seem to think the latter, treating the machine more like part of the family than a tool.Cunning computing
Moving from robots to software, when Pepper sees a video clip sent by terrorists who have captured Stark, she uses nifty real-time translation program to understand their demands.
The most fashionable way for software right now to learn how to translate is for it to scan through thousands of previously translated documents. But the approach doesn't always work, with sometimes unfortunate results.
This is just some of the tech used in Iron Man that is rooted in reality. Others include a 3D tactile interface that Stark uses to design his armour, targeting software that homes in on human heads, and the problem of ice formation when flying. New Scientist w\Links To Download Vid