Duke student shares superhero power during White House discussion

Jul. 19, 2013 @ 05:14 PM

A Duke graduate student participated in a White House “We the Geeks” web panel Friday afternoon, where research discoveries by engineering and physics enthusiasts were likened to real superhero powers.

Duke graduate student Nathan Landy discussed his invisibility cloak project, which uses a new meta-material to reroute the transmission of light and waves, according to the Duke Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Other speakers introduced self-healing and touch-sensitive synthetic skin from Stanford University, liquid armor from the University of Delaware, and a Batman-like ascender created for the U.S. military.

The Google Plus Hangout was hosted by the White House Administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The man-made materials of the invisibility cloak can guide electromagnetic waves around an object and have them emerge on the other side as if they’ve passed through an empty volume of space. The end result is a cloaked object, according to the Duke engineering department.

University of Minnesota physics professor James Kakalios said he brings comic books into his physics class lectures to make the subject easier to understand and less intimidating. He also is the author of “The Physics of Superheroes.”

“If you tell the same story with Spider-Man or Superman, people don’t have those shields up as much,” Kakalios said.

The presenters provided examples of their technology during the web talk. Two pieces of synthetic skin were healed and grew back together. Someone used the ascender to propel themselves toward the ceiling. An ice pick was used to stab at the liquid armor, which was impenetrable.

An audience member posed a question to Landy: What are the positive applications of the invisibility cloak, so you’re not using it for evil?

Landy said the technology could even be used to cloak stagehands during performances or remove blockages that affect radio antennas.

He also was asked what superpower he would pick.

“I don’t think I’d choose invisibility,” Landy said. “I think it would cause more problems than it would solve. I think I would choose flight, to be able to see the world on my own terms.”

Kakalios, who wore a Captain America shirt during the presentation, said some of these superhero scientific breakthroughs were going to transform the world, such as using the ascender in the future instead of an elevator.

“We all have our intelligence, (that) is our real superpower,” he said. “We use it every day, we need to improve on it and build on it every day, because the forces of evil are always waiting.”