Superhero Puzzle #23 — Explain Spiderman’s Webbing

Peter Parker (alias Spiderman) gets bitten by a radioactively treated spider, which ends up giving him superpowers such as an ability to emit super-strong silk thread from newly formed glands in his wrists, and immense stamina and superior  strength and agility.   It’s the spider web he emits from his glands that is the curiosity for today.


I do not really enjoy trying to explain miraculous biology as much as other superhero oddities, but probably not for the reasons you might at first suspect.  So go on, suspect for a second!  Done?  OK, let me continue.

Biological effects boils down to cellular effects.  And cells are just incredibly gnarly things.  You ordinary body cells in fact are just so freaking amazing in what they do that I’d call them miracles of nature, except that everyone has these superpowers, so we just call them body cells and think of them as pretty boring things we try to learn about in school biology for a year or two.

But talk to any professional biologist and you might be amazed (or bored all over again–it depends on how enthusiastic they are, try to find a live-wired biologist to talk to) at how fantastic the cells of your body are.  They do things that science cannot yet fully explain.  They operate on so many levels of chemical complexity that it is mind-boggling.  The subject of cell biology should really be a totally separate science because it is so complicated.  Only it cannot be separated out because it is intricately linked to very low-level chemistry, even low level physics, and high-level physiology of the whole organism and it’s environment.  Think of how an odour wafting through a room can effect every single person in the room, just a  simple molecule, drifting randomly in air currents.  It attaches to receptors in our nostrils and can have all sorts of knock-on psychological and physiological effects.  all because of the miracles of our cells.  Got it?  Cells are awesome, just awesome, awesome, awesome.

That’s why I have such a hard time figuring out realistic fantasy scifi for biological superpowers.  Often i just have to give up.

With Peter Parker, obviously we start from a point of totally realistic science. Spider’s do spin silk threads to make their webbing.  It can be either super-sticky or super-smooth.  And pound-for-pound silk is tougher than hardened steel.  steel ain’t so tough!  The only reason steel stops bullets is because it packs a lot of metal atoms in a small volume.  But that makes steel very heavy.  Spider silk is much superior, since it is stretchy and can absorb energy amazingly well, so only a small volume of silk can be spun into a bullet-proof vest which weighs not much more than a thick woollen jersey, and which would be thinner and more fashionable than a woollen jersey too.

Yeah, Superman (Kal-El) should be named The Man of Silk, not the Man of Steel!

Anyway, spiders do ooze silk out of glands.  So somehow the spider’s activated DNA gets spliced into Parker’s human DNA at a cellular level.  OK, the radiation can help this, since gamma radiation is powerful enough to alter chemical bonding with ease.  The intricacy required to genetically engineer a complex organism like a human is of course just total scifi fantasy nuts!  At some level you have to suspend disbelief a’ight!  And this is the level for Spidey.  Somehow, we know not how and do not wish to ask God the why or wherefore, the spider DNA gets transcribed into Parker’s.

With that done, it’s no problemo admitting Parker’s ability to emit super-strong silk thread from newly developed glands, since his body cells obviously have gained some spider powers, all completely rational and logical huh?

But spiders glands in near their butt-holes, or where their butts would be if they had arses.  So why does Parker’s silk spinning originate from his wrists?

Sure, spiders manipulate their thread with their mandibles and limbs.  But that’s not where the stuff gets excreted.  So what is your answer to this puzzle?

You can’t tell me the comic publishers simply did not want a superhero with a super-arsehole power.  I know that is the proper explanation. But it’s too boring, and besides, it violates the scifi code of finding a scientific explanation from within the myth.

So for ages I’ve been stumped by this one.  So I tried putting myself inside the comic. Some guy walks up to Peter Parker and who knows his alias, say it’s a smart-arse friend.  He says, “So Parker, how come you spin spidey web from your wrists, not from a gland in your butt?  I mean, isn’t that where the radioactive spider gland would’ve been?”  What does Parker say?

“Well David, I do not need to know where my thread gets spun to be a superhero.”

Neehhh, not so good.

What about, “Well David, I was bitten in the arm, so I figure the potency of the spidey power is concentrated there, and in the embryonic stem cells which mutated the fastest the silk excretion glands naturally grew near my arms, but at extremities as with real spiders. It’s all a matter of cellular differentiation.  Look it up in a bio textbook.”

Nahhh,..?  I think that’d be my official version though.  It’s the sanest response.  Still not completely satisfying?   But then there’s this explanation:

“Well David, I actually do spin it out my butt, but in my suit I get it passed through low viscosity tubes in my superhero costume and so it only emerges from my wrists by appearance.  Here,… I don’t wanna show you, but just take a sniff of it…”

Yeah, I think that does the job of scratching the butt-itch that I’ve had about Spiderman’s web glands for sure.


Sorry these Superhero Puzzle posts are going to be all out of order.  Just ignore the quiz numbers!  I only post those that I’m happy with, and so many superhero science is tricky to “get right” paradoxically, since we’re dealing with a fictional world here!  Still, it is harder to do since sometimes in a fictional world, you have fewer constraints, and more imagination, but that makes the science harder to get entertainingly plausible and satisfying.  Which is, of course, half the fun of this!)

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