Classroom Spotlight: Exploring the Science of Superheroes

Marvel’s Iron Man, played by Robert Downey Jr., served as a starting point for a discussion of bioengineering.

Photo: Alamy

“Everyone really enjoys the lectures and wants to come and listen,” said Chloe Raichle ’23

You might be surprised to learn that one of Princeton’s most advanced science lessons often begins with a few minutes of a Marvel or DC movie. The extraordinary skills and abilities of superheroes and other fantastical creatures inspired Shane Campbell-Staton’s course, The Biology of Superheroes: Exploring the Limits of Form and Function, new to Princeton this spring.

“We use comics, superheroes, [and] science fiction as thought experiments to explore the mechanisms of life, extreme adaptation, biologically inspired engineering, brain-machine interfacing… [a] pretty broad range of topics,” explained Campbell-Staton, assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology (EEB).

His twin passions for science and superheroes first came together when he got hooked on comic books as a graduate student. At night, Campbell-Staton said, he had “phenomenaly weird dreams”, where the comics got mixed up with the academic papers he read “in all these weird ways”.

The results were this course, which he first led at UCLA, before coming to Princeton in 2021, and a podcast, β€œThe Biology of Superheroes,” which he co-hosts with Arien Darby. , a global brand manager at Warner Bros. They’re working on season two, coming later this year.

The 24 EEB majors in the class met twice a week at the Schultz lab.

“A lot of times the hour and a half lectures at 8:30 a.m. can be pretty dry,” said Chloe Raichle ’23. “But attendance [for this course] was actually fantastic because everyone really enjoys the lectures and wants to come and listen.

Not only does Campbell-Staton use in-depth examples from popular comic books, movies like Jurassic Park, and even HBO’s hit 2023 drama series The Last of Us to teach various science concepts, but he also studies sociological and ethical impacts. related. For example, the Justice League superhero Cyborg and Iron Man’s Tony Stark served as starting points for a discussion of bioengineering, its limitations, invasive interfaces, and psychological side effects.

“I didn’t expect such a broad synthesis of all these different science topics, but I really appreciate it,” Claire Galat ’23 said. “It was very helpful for me to combine everything I learned.”

For the mid-term, each student wrote an article summarizing a scientific theory stemming from a fictitious biological phenomenon.

“As long as the science concepts were advanced enough and we put enough detailed work into them, we had a lot of freedom to do whatever we wanted,” said Raichle, who wrote about the 1982 horror film The Thing to explore shapeshifting and regeneration.

For the finale, the students worked in groups to conduct another thought experiment, though Campbell-Staton asked them to come up with more creative formats for their finished products β€” maybe even a comic book.

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