Giving Your Equations a Nice Bath & Scrub

There’s a good book for beginning computer programmers I recently came across.  All young kids wanting to write code professionally should check out Robert Martin’s book, “Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship”  (Ideally get your kids to read this before the more advanced “Design Patterns” books.)

But is there such a guide for writing clean mathematics?

I could ask around on Mathforums or Quora, but instead here I will suggest some of my own tips for such a guide volume.  What gave me this spark to write a wee blog about this was a couple of awesome “finds”.  The first was Professor Tadashi Tokieda’s Numberphile clips and his AIMS Lectures on Topology and Geometry (all available on YouTube).  Tokieda plugs a couple of “good reads”, and this was the second treasure: V.I. Arnold’s lectures on Abel’s Theorem, which were typed up by his student V.B. Alekseev, “Abel’s Theorem in Problems and Solutions”, which is available in abridged format (minus solutions) in a translation by Julian Gilbey here: “Abels’ Theorem Through Problems“.

Tadashi lecturing in South Africa.

Tadashi lecturing in South Africa. Clearer than Feynman?

Tokieda’s lectures and Arnold’s exposition style are perfect examples of “clean mathematics”.  What do I mean by this?

Firstly, what I absolutely do not mean is Bourbaki style rigour and logical precision.  That’s not clean mathematics.  Because the more precision and rigour you demand the more dense and less comprehensible it all becomes to the point where it becomes unreadable and hence useless.

I mean mathematics that is challenging for the mind (so interesting) and yet clear and understandable and visualizable.  That last aspect is crucial.  If I cannot visualise an abstract idea then it has not been explained well and I have not understood it deeply.  We can only easily visualize 2D examples or 3D if we struggle.  So how are higher dimensional ideas visualised?  Tokieda shows there is no need.  You can use the algebra perfectly well for higher dimensional examples, but always give the idea in 2D or 3D.

It’s amazing that 3D seems sufficient for most expositions.  With a low dimension example most of the essence of the general N dimensional cases can be explained in pictures.   Perhaps this is due to 3D being the most awkward dimension?  It’s just a pity we do not have native 4D vision centres in our brain (we actually do, it’s called memory, but it sadly does not lead to full 4D optical feature recognition).

Dr Tokieda tells you how good pictures can be good proofs.  The mass of more confusing algebra a good picture can replace is startling (if you are used to heavy symbolic algebra).  I would also add that Sir Roger Penrose and John Baez are to experts who make a lot of use of pictorial algebra, and that sort of stuff is every bit as rigorous as symbolic algebra, and I would argue even more-so.  How’s that?  The pictorial algebra is less prone to mistake and misinterpretation, precisely because our brains are wired to receive information visually without the language symbol filters.  Thus whenever you choose instead to write proofs using formal symbolics you are reducing your writing down to less rigour, because it is easier to make mistakes and have your proof misread.

So now, in homage to Robert Martin’s programming style guide, here are some analogous sample chapter or section headings for a hypothetical book on writing clean mathematics.

Keep formal (numbered) definitions to a minimum

Whenever you need a formal definition you have failed the simplicity test.  A definition means you have not found a natural way to express or name a concept.  That’s really all definitions are, they set up names for concepts.

Occasionally advanced mathematics requires defining non-intuitive concepts, and these will require a formal approach, precisely because they are non-intuitive.  But otherwise, name objects and relations clearly and put the keywords in old, and then you can avoid cluttering up chapters with formal boring looking definition breaks.  The definitions should, if at all possible, flow naturally and be embedded in natural language paragraphs.

Do not write symbolic algebra when a picture will suffice

Most mathematicians have major hang-ups about providing misleading visual illustrations.  So my advice is do not make them misleading!  But you should use picture proofs anyway, whenever possible, just make sure they capture the essence and are generalisable to higher dimensions.  It is amazing how often this is possible.  If you doubt me, then just watch Tadashi Tokieda’s lectures linked to above.

Pro mathematicians often will think pictures are weak.  But the reality is the opposite.  Pictures are powerful.  Pictures should not sacrifice rigour.  It is the strong mathematician who can make their ideas so clear and pristine that a minimalistic picture will suffice to explain an idea of great abstract generality.  Mathematicians need to follow the physicists credo of using inference, one specific well-chosen example can suffice as an exemplar case covering infinitely many general cases.  The hard thing is choosing a good example.  It is an art.  A lot of mathematician writers seem to fail at this art, or not even try.

You do not have to use picture in your research if you do not get much from them, but in your expositions, in your writing for the public, failing to use pictures is a disservice to your readers.

The problem with popular mathematics books is not the density of equations, it is the lack of pictures.  If for every equation you have a couple of nice illustrative pictures, then there would be no such thing as “too many equations” even for a lay readership.  The same rule should apply to academic mathematics writing, with perhaps an reasonable allowance for a slightly higher symbol to picture ratio, because academically you might need to fill in a few gaps for rigour.

Rigour does not imply completeness

Mathematics should be rigorous, but not tediously so.  When gaps do not reduce clarity then you can avoid excessive equations.  Just write what the reader needs, do not fill in every gap for them.  And whenever a gap can be filled with a picture, use the picture rather than more lines of symbolic algebra.  So you do not need ruthless completeness.  Just provide enough for rigour to be inferred.

Novel writers know this.  If they set out to describe scenes completely they would ever get past chapter one. Probably not even past paragraph one.  And giving the reader too much information destroys the operation of their inner imagination and leads to the reader disconnecting from the story.

For every theorem provide many examples

The Definition to Theorem ratio should be low, for every couple of definitions there should be a bundle of nice theorems, otherwise the information content of your definitions has been poor.  More  definitions than theorems means you’ve spent more of your words naming stuff not using stuff.  Likewise the Theorem to Example ratio should be lo.  More theorems than examples means you’ve cheated the student by showing them lot of abstract ideas with no practical use.  So show them plenty of practical uses so they do not feel cheated.

Write lucidly and for entertainment

This is related to the next heading which is to write with a story narrative.  On a finer level, every sentence should be clear, use plain language, and minimum jargon.  Mathematics text should be every bit as descriptive and captivating as a great novel.  If you fail in writing like a good journalist or novelist then you have failed to write clean mathematics.  Good mathematics should entertain the aficionado.  It does not have to be set like a literal murder mystery with so many pop culture references and allusions that you lose all the technical content.  But for a mathematically literate reader you should be giving them some sense of build-up in tension and then resolution.  Dangle some food in front of them and lead them to water.  People who pick up a mathematics book are not looking for sex, crime and drama, nor even for comedy, but you should give them elements of such things inside the mathematics.  Teasers like why we are doing this, what will it be used for, how it relates to physics or other sciences, these are your sex and crime and drama.  And for humour you can use mathematical characters, stories of real mathematicians.  It might not be funny, but there is always a way to amuse an interested reader, so find those ways.

Write with a Vision

I think a lot of mathematical texts are dry ad suffer because they present “too close to research”.  What a good mathematical writer should aim for is the essence of any kind of writing, which is to narrate a story.  Psychology tells us this is how average human beings best receive and remember information.  So in mathematics you need a grand vision of where you are going.  If instead you just want to write about your research, then do the rest of us a favour and keep it off the bookshelves!

If you want to tell a story about your research then tell the full story, some history, some drama in how you stumbled, but then found a way through the forest of abstractions, and how you triumphed in the end.

The problem with a lot of mathematics monographs is that they aim for comprehensive coverage of a topic.  But that’s a bad style guide.  Instead they should aim to provide tools to solve a class of problems.  And the narrative is how to get from scratch up to the tools needed to solve the basic problem and then a little more.  With lots of dangling temptations along the way.  The motivation then is the main problem to be solved, which is talked about up front, as a carrot, not left as an obscure mystery one must read the entire book through to find.  Murder mysteries start with the murder first, not last.

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That’s enough for now. I should add to this list of guides later. I should follow my own advice too.

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Here’s a v. quick post:  have you been dying to see an intelligent SciFi movie or series?  They are are few and far between right?!  One I am waiting for on DVD is The Martian (2015), I’ve heard ok reviews and the book it was based upon had very good reviews and listening to interviews with the author, Andy Weir, it seems like a quality piece of hard scifi that had some sound engineering physics thought behind it.   Hard to know whether to read the book or watch the film. Film is faster!  Life is short!  Therefore watch the film and sadly miss the book?   Too many mathematics texts to read anyway, so the film it is [sigh]!

If I’m not feeling wide awake enough for a mathematics or physics lecture during my lunch break, I might try a bit of scifi TV or read a science blog article, or sometimes find a good movie to dip into.

And I do mean “dip into”.  I eat fairly quickly, and not too huge helpings, so it’s all over in 15 minutes.  And that’s about as much of a movie I can watch in one session.  Heading out the the theatre is a rare event these days, and besides that, I like to watch a good movie in comparative solitude.

So every purple moon I might find an intelligent SciFi movie.  But I will start watching and get nervous that any moment the story will sensationalize and lapse into horribly saccharine, physically implausible unreality.  You cannot even begin writing a critique of the SciFi genre because 99% of what the film industry turns out is utter crap.  That might seem too harsh, the SFX are vastly better than in days of old, but the stories are the critical component of any good film or book.  And it is the plot, the dialogue, and the whole story structure that really sucks in just about every recent Scifi  film I have seen in the past decade or more.   (Hold on now, I am getting to a good recommendation.)

The problem I think is that the improvements in SFX have outpaced improvements in screenplays.  Older screenplays could be just as good or a lot better than modern scripts because the focus in the old days had to be on stories because the SFX totally sucked.  Take Star Trek as an example.  The modern Star Trek stories have a lot more fancy CGI and the screenplays use a lot more modern science ideas, so they seem pretty cool compared to the camp TV series.  Similar comments could be made about Doctor Who, another generation spanning SciFi series.  But if you analyse them a little more deeply, and think about the dialogue and the psychology, not a lot has really improved.  The dialogue in Start Trek Into the Darkness (2013) was fairly childish.  Whenever a cool science point could be made the pseudo-science explanations lapsed perhaps into even worse quasi-science than the dialogues from the original TV series.  They just use a few more modern science buzz-words.  The actual meat of the scifi science explanations is often a lot worse.  The logic is a lot worse, the liberties taken with reality more extreme. (Recall the “photon torpedo”? … OMG, … let’s not even go there!) The Star Trek franchise should be consulting the chap who wrote the Science of Star Trek books, or Michio Kaku, who can rhapsodize endlessly about plausible scifi science.

I could write a long essay on this, but I won’t.

Can I then get to my recommendation?

Sure dude.  Just hang on one more minute though.   The thing is, I suspect, what makes a really good scifi story is one that dials back the fantasy and aims for a lot of hard realism.  So something like the “near future” genre is always promising, but using plausible and reasonable extrapolations of current science.  Especially stories that obey the principles of conservation of energy, momentum, and the second law of thermodynamics.  Those are perhaps the most blatantly violated principles of science that bad SciFi movies in particular routinely abuse.  My point is that if you discipline your story to obey just these three principles then you will be constraining your plot.  Such constraints are beautiful things.  It forces the other human aspects of your story to be more powerful and it helps make the audience more involved and engaged, even if the average audience member is not aware of the principles.  (I lose count of the number of CGI-mediated violations of conservation of momentum in crashes and fight scenes.  Each instance just makes me more and more nauseous.  even fairly serious film makers like Peter Jackson, routinely violate conservation of momentum — both linear and rotational — in their CGI spectaculars.)

So when someone makes a SciFi film that does not even begin to worry about spectacular CGI, then I am extremely interested.  So here is the recommendation:  go and grab a copy of Robot and Frank (2012).

Robot_and_Frank_movie poster

A movie with no CGI pretensions, and a nice premise on the face of it.

I have only seen the first 15 minutes, so I am still nervous the plot will get derailed later by unrealistic physics or computer science.  But I think this is one film I can happily watch to the end based on the story premise.  Give it a go.

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I guess it is possible the artificial intelligence postulates in this movie will degenerate into implausibility, but over the next week of lunch breaks I’ll risk it. 🙂



A Beautiful Folding — and the Rise of Transformers

If you want to treat your brain then try watching the MIT lectures by Professor Erik Demaine over at 6.849: Geometric Folding Algorithms: Linkages, Origami, Polyhedra (Fall 2010). Not sure if that was the most recent year his course was offered, but I’m sure you can find the latest version. I will not update this post or any links in any of my blogs, so as always, just Google the key words and you are bound to find what I’m pointing you at.


Among many cool results, the two prompting me to write this brief post were:

  1. The universality result that there is a crease pattern from which any modular cuboid polyhedron can be folded.
  2. The self-folding paper construction: a crease pattern can be folded in any way by electrical current stimulation. So we have Origamistless origami.

Ergo: the age of Transformers is upon us! Hahahaha!

Too bad artificial consciousness is not a paper fold.


I dunno man. … you see Demaine and his Dad with huge smiles on their faces, glass-blowing. folding cured crease patterns and chatting with John Conway and other legends, and you have to almost cry at the beauty of it all. So much life, so much joy, such intense devotion to art and science.


Oh yeah, … how many mathematicians have their work on permanent collection at MOMA?

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Chain Mile Evil

When I discovered the works of China Mieville, at first through his fabulous piston-driven horrifically gnarly Perdido Street Station, I starting getting pangs of desire to start writing fiction again. Actually “Perdido” is not really horrific. It is gross, sickening, ugly, brutal and yet intricately beautiful. Even the worst of the “monsters” are beautifully described by Mieville, by which I mean his terrifying Slake Moths who feed from and drain psyches.

(Incidentally, there is a creature, called a Teller, who does something similar in Doctor Who, Season 8, episode “Time Heist“. Only it is not as avante garde a destroyer as the Slake Moth. But the Teller does melt brains! Which offers some graphic horromusement, or is it horritainment? You gotta think though, that a protagonist who renders your nonphysical psyche into an empty nothingness is much more existentially horrific. The Slake Moth sucks your soul out, your personal identity and subjective consciousness becomes the empty set.)

The Weaver - 1

A nice ethereal depiction of The Weaver, from Perdido Street Station.

A Quick Quiz

There are more sickening creatures besides the Slake Moths. But try playing a guessing game with my mind, to peer into my psyche, to see if you can tell which other monsters I am speaking of, you might be surprised which ones I am referring to.

Not his daemons. I liked the daemons. They had strong self-preservation instincts and cunning, and so would not be drawn into battle against the Slake Moths.

Not the Handlingers either. Although they were bizarre and not pleasant to read about while having lunch. The same goes for the Khepri sex and the barrage of images Mieville infects the readers mind with when describing the hapless remade criminals, sentenced to bouts of biothaumaturgical grafting and xeonomorphing and heterotyping or their body parts.

Not Mr Motley either. Motley is a cool character. Evil for sure. Ugly for certain. But partly a victim of his time and era in the fictional world of Mieville’s imagination. Mr Motley is not really crazy evil like a Bin Laden or a Ghengis Khan or Hitler or Charles Manson or Pol Pot. Nah man! Motley is merely a banal evil entity, a product of his environment, like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs!! Hahahah! Seriously! Or, … well, maybe I exaggerate. Motley is perhaps closer in characters from nonfiction to, say, someone like a total dickhead like Donald Trump (maybe? Is he really evil or just a douchebag?) or one of those corporate CEO’s from corrupt organizations in the military-industrial complex, like a Union Carbide executive or a Blackwater CEO or Halliburton CEO, one of those high-ups who profit off war, government sanctioned killing and genocide and human misery.

Slake Moth - 1

Hard to find a good drawing of a Slake Moth. How can one capture their essential horror? This one is not too bad.

Do a Bit of Weaving Mr

Not the Weaver either, goddamm! I love the Weaver. Most awesome character in sifi I have come across in decades. Strike that. Most awesome character in scifi eveeeerrrr!

“Snip, snap, the gleaming metal blades sharpen the world weave and I cut the dross and flotsam and remake the  dimensions gleaming and shiny, pretty to the eye and fit template to the mind who delights. I will warp and weave and splice the sentient scenery of a million eyes swooning on the silver and coloured diffractions of the manifold glistening brightnesses. The Grimnebulin creature I will pluck! And send to slithery blistering lair of the gloomy drapers of the weave unreality who make so tortured and unpatterned havoc. We must cut from the fabric! No delightful strand remains whence those spineless wing-ed ones wreak their sloth over the yarn we have made nice.”

Or something like that! Gotta love the Weaver.

The Weaver - 2

This sketch of The Weaver is a good start, but misses out the scissory aesthetic sine qua non of the Weaver.

But there is so much that is (willfully and deliberately artistically) flawed on the ontologies of Bas-Lag (the world of Perdido Street Station) that the novel became like a typical movie for me that I wanted to remake and reinvent. But I cannot. I do not possess the linguistic thaumaturgy.

So I do not wish to write anything like Perdido. What this has inspired me to dedicate some time towards is something far more removed and ethereal. For I think there is, in the real world, as much frantic and incandescently enlightened art and science and natural wonder that surpasses everything in the supercharged fantasy world of China Mieville’s Bas-Lag. But you have to dig deep into this actual world of ours to find it and make it appear more than mundane to the eyes of those who are not aware.

The Weaver - 3

A fairly literal Weaver. The real magic horror of The Weaver is his speech, not his capricious dismembering of creatures for pure aesthetic motives.

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Answer to the Quiz

The most horrific monsters in Perdido Street Station were,

  • Vermishank — the scheming academic who wanted to culture the Slake Moths for military weaponry.
  • Mayor Bentham Rudgutter — for the same reasons Vermishank is a horror.
  • David Serachin — formerly one of Issac’s scientist friends, but who betrayed Lin and Isaac to the authorities. Betrayal is the worst horrors, or one of the worst besides rape and murder.

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Spaghetti Monster with Green Ears — “We lef’ some’in’ unduhn marty”

True Detective.  Best miniseries ending ever! 😉  You have to watch the series to appreciate how misanthropic and utterly cynical Rustin Cohle was before his brief brain death after being stabbed by the serial killer.


So here is the final dialogue.

Marty (Martin Hart): “Talk to me, Rust.”

Rust (Rustin Cohle): “There was a moment, I know, when I was under in the dark, that something … whatever I’d been reduced to, not even consciousness, just a vague awareness in the dark. I could feel my definitions fading. And beneath that darkness there was another kind — it was deeper — warm, like a substance. I could feel man, I knew, I knew my daughter waited for me, there. So clear. I could feel her. I could feel … I could feel the peace of my Pop, too. It was like I was part of everything that I have ever loved, and we were all, the three of us, just fading out. And all I had to do was let go, man. And I did. I said, ‘Darkness, yeah.’ and I disappeared. But I could still feel her love there. Even more than before. Nothing. Nothing but that love. And then I woke up.”

[Rust breaks down, sobbing.]

Marty: “Didn’t you tell me one time, dinner once, maybe, about how you used to … you used to make up stories about the stars?”

Rust: “Yeah, that was in Alaska, under the night skies.”

Marty: “Yeah, you used to lay there and look up, at the stars?”

Rust: “Yeah, I think you remember how I never watched the TV until I was 17, so there wasn’t much to do up there but walk around, explore, and…”

Marty: “And look up at the stars and make up stories. Like what?”

Rust: “I tell you Marty I been up in that room looking out those windows every night here just thinking,…”

For the last few lines I’ll use some of: Mah Lousaana ahksent spellin’ ‘sh d’librat.) 😉

Rust: “Ish juhz one story, the oldest.”

Marty “Whash that?”

Rusty: “Light vershus dark.”

Marty: “Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but, appears to me tha’ the dark has a lot more territory.”

Rusty: “Yeah,… you’re right about that. …. Hey listen… hey…”

Marty: “Yeah what?”

Rusty: “W’ shyuu you point me in the direction of the car man. I spend enough of my funckin’ life in a hospital.”

Marty: “Jesus. You know what? I’d protest, but it occurs to me that you’re un-killable. You wanna go back get y’ clothes or anythung?”

Rusty: “Nah, anything I left back there I don’ need.”

Rusty:: “Ya know you’re lookin’ at it wrong… tha’ sky thing…”

Marty: “Howz that?”

Rusty: “Well, once tharr was only dark… You ashk me, the light’s winning.”

Marty: “hehehe.”

[Pan up to the stars… fade to black …]

[The drums begin … to “The Angry River“]

“The emptiness that we confess
In the dimmest hour of day
In Automatown they make a sound
Like the low sad moan of prey

“The bitter taste the hidden face
Of the lost forgotten child
The darkest need the slowest speed
The debt unreconciled

“These photographs mean nothing
To the poison that they take
Before a moment’s glory
The light begins to fade

“The awful cost of all we lost
As we looked the other way
We’ve paid the price of this cruel device
Till we’ve nothing left to pay

“The river goes where the current flows
The light we must destroy
Events conspire to set afire
The methods we employ

“These dead men walk on water
Cold blood runs through their veins
The angry river rises
As we step into the rain

“These photographs mean nothing
To the poison that they take
The angry river rises
As we step into the rain”

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Superhero Puzzle #6 — Explain Hulk’s Strength and Invulnerability

Actually, the Hulk is not invulnerable to harm.  He feels some pain, and his skin and inner tissues can be damaged, but they repair super-fast.  That’s part of what this puzzle is set to explain.  The other part is the way Hulk gets stronger the angrier he gets.

The Hulk

The madder he gets, the stronger he gets. It’s all about nuclear energy storage and release. But how? 

In Marvel comics Bruce Banner is a nuclear physicist who saves the life of a young kid who wanders accidentally into a “gamma bomb” test facility.  In saving the kid Banner receives a full blast of gamma radiation.  Instead of killing him,  as all the laws of physics suggest it should, it triggers mutations in his DNA or radical alterations in his physiology and neurology which enables his body cells to exponentially enlarge and strengthen, but only when his rage or anger hormones, pulse rate, and neural activity peak.

This already has some fascinating physics and biology potential.  For instance, there is some kind of implied biochemical — nuclear physics link, which is extraordinary, because biochemistry operates at the level of electrons around atoms, whereas gamma radiation effects influence primarily the nuclei of atoms, and there is a massive gulf in length and time scale between nuclear and atomic physics.  Atomic physics is (in time scales) to nuclear physics like glacier motion is to photon torpedoes.  And in length scales atomic physics is to nuclear physics like the Grand Canyon is to an Ant Hill.  In energy levels atomic physics is like a tickle from a ducklings feather compared to uranium-tipped missile impacts of nuclear physics.

Another Hulking condition which is fascinating to try to explain with realistic science is the way Hulk gets almost infinitely stronger the angrier he gets.  So he literally has never truly been beaten in a fight, not even by Thor and Mjolnir, or more malevolent gods and demons, since the longer and more brutal the fight, the stronger he gets.

Gamma Rays

Gamma rays are just very high energy light waves, or photons.  (Light has this dual characteristic, sometimes acting like waves, sometimes like particles which we call “photons”.  It’s a mystery to modern science why light has this dual nature, so I will not discuss it here, since it’s a science topic of it’s own.)

Not all light waves/particles are visible to our eyes.  For instance, infrared is lower energy then red light and is invisible to our eyes, but not to our heat sense.  Ultraviolet light is higher energy than blue light and is invisible to our eyes, but not to the eyes of honey bees.

X-rays are higher energy than ultraviolet, which is how they can penetrate soft tissues and are useful for medical imaging and remote sensing.  Gamma-rays are the generic name for all light waves/particles higher in energy than X-rays.  So gamma-rays cover a massive energy range.

Absorption of Gamma Ray Energy

Over the decades The Hulk has exerted so much force and strength and healing that the total energy he has used would greatly exceed that of the initial gamma ray energy dose form the nuclear test accident.

Quick Calculation: prove this “fact” using some rough estimates.  Include reasonable uncertainties to back up the fact.  (A solution will be published in a later article.)

So one of the first puzzles is to explain how The Hulk can continue being super-strong.  This has to be related to the biomechanism of his hulking condition.

The other main puzzle is to explain how come his hulking state is triggered by anger, rage and stress.

You Won’t Like Me When I’m Angry

Anger, rage, stress — are all physiological responses to external stimuli.  The body’s response occurs via the relay of the stress signals to the brain.  So the primary response is neurological.  Sometimes the stimulus can be direct nerve impulses, like heat, cold, cuts, punches and other pains and stresses.  Other things can trigger the same neurological responses, such as emotional pain.  The commonality is the part of the brain that responds.

In all such responses to stress the brain fires nerve impulses to glands which produce stress hormones, like adrenalin, cortisol, histamines, epinephrin, norepinephrin, glucocorticoids, catecholamines, and others.  But none of these hormones can grow muscle cells, or enlarge and toughen body tissue like in the Hulk’s condition.  So we need to postulate some rather unique biology to account for the Hulk.

But the neurological stress response and the associated hormone response is the start.  The main problem I think is that this is all chemistry, whereas gamma-ray energy (the source of the Hulk’s power) is all nuclear.  But that needs some elaboration.

One of the types of hormone released in stress responses are growth hormones, such as certain steroids and prolactin, and maybe stuff like creatine.  These can be a big factor for Hulk.  Since we have to explain rapid muscle growth.

For the Hulk, these have to be somewhat super-charged hormones.  They must act thousands of times faster than they do normally.  So for this we need a nice tight nuclear-to-electrical response pathway, one that accelerates hormone effects, by-passing a lot of the “slow chemistry”..

Gamma Ray Energy is Nuclear Energy

The tricky thing about gamma rays is that they have such high energy that chemically, and hence biologically, they are just plain destructive.  Chemical processes operate at much gentler atomic or electrical energies, which are about hundreds to thousands of times lower in energy than nuclear energy levels.

So for Hulk to be powered by gamma-ray energy his body would need to be radically altered from normal human condition so that his atoms can store nuclear energy.  It has to be nuclear, it cannot be the gentler electrical-atomic type of energy.  The binding between atoms is purely electrical in character.  So all chemistry is electrical.  Hence all biology is electrical.  There is really nothing nuclear about chemistry.

All the nuclear force contributes to chemistry si the stability fo the positively charged atom nuclei.  The nuclear forces holds protons and neutrons tightly packed in the nucleus of every atom, and the nucleus is where 90% of the mass of an atom is packed.  But aside from the positive electric charge of the protons, the nucleus plays no other role in chemistry.  It is simply the positive attrctive kernel of every atom which holds the negatively charged electrons in orbit around the atom.  Aside from this concentrated positive electric charge of the nucleus, all chemistry is all electrons.

That’s why chemistry is not a good basis for the Hulk’s superpowers. This is because the force of electricity is much weaker (about a million times weaker over short ranges) than the nuclear force.  By the way, if you need words, the usual name for the nuclear force is “the quantum chromodynamic force“, or just QCD for short.

Gamma ray energies correspond to transition within nuclei.  They are typically millions or more “electronvolts”.  An electron volt is just a convenient unit of energy, it corresponds to the energy gained or lost by one electron moving through a voltage difference of one volt.  So it’s not much, but when packed into a single photon it is a super-dense amount of energy.  A million electron volts is still not much energy, if it struck your finger in the form of a spark of electricity it would hardly register on your skin, but again, when a million electron-volts is packed into one tiny particle then it is a super-super-dense packing of energy.  So gamma-rays are just such ultra-dense packets of energy.  That’s why they are harmful, since one gamma-ray can disrupt atoms and hence tear apart chemical molecules, and so can cause mutations in DNA.  Normally such damage from gamma-rays is just plain damaging, and also a bit unpredictable in effect, other than that you can predict fairly certainly it will be harmful.

But somehow the nuclear energy received by Bruce Banner triggered obvious biochemical changes in his physiology. Not just catastrophic chaotic damage.  So the trick to providing some plausible science for The Hulk is mainly in figuring out how nuclear energy can be stored and regenerated and then transferred into chemical energy.  This is a hard puzzle, because the electric force and the nuclear QCD force do not easily interact.

The QCD-nuclear force operates on time scales of billionths of a second, whereas the electric-chemical force operates on time scales of microseconds. The QCD-nuclear force operates over length scales of billionths of a micrometer, while the electric-chemical force operates over lengths scales of millimetres to micrometres to metres or even sometimes kilometres, a billion times longer range than nuclear-QCD forces.  So it’s a problem coming up with a mechanism for transferring nuclear energy into electrical energy.  Some sort of bridging mechanism is needed.  What could it be?

Nuclear to Atomic Level Transitions

The tiny dense ultrafast world of the nucleus is so far removed from the gentle swirling spacious world of atomic electrons that there seems no way to bridge thee divide.  It is analogous to bridging the separation between  a droplet of water and an entire ocean.  Or like comparing a giant fierce star with a tiny candle flame.

But energy is ubiquitous and is nature’s natural currency.  So there has to be some way to get the dense highly dangerous nuclear energy stored in Bruce Banner out and up-level to the slower lower level of chemistry of Hulk.

The stored nuclear gamma-energy has to be in the form of highly exotic and normally unstable nuclear systems, these are at the tiny dense heart of every atom.  Normally unstable exotic nuclear states decay rapidly, releasing bursts of gamma-ray energy or other radiation products, like alpha particles or beta particles.  But in Bruce Banner these exotic states have to be so intricate that they have become self-stabilising, and yet still loaded with excess energy like highly coiled springs.  Super-springs really,  Super-super-duper springs.

So what’s really going on?  Well, it has to be something to do with the exotic physics of Superstrings and $n$-branes.  These are the hypothetical elements of all particles found in nature.  Every particle, from electrons to photons, are really tiny vibrating strings or membranes, like ultra-ultra-ultra-microscopic stringed instruments, only with any instrument backbone, just the stringiness.

Superstrings are supposedly non science fiction either, there is good reason to suppose they are truly what physical matter is composed from.  And here’s the key thing:  if a superstring is excited by a huge amount, it vibrates differently, and this is a form of compactly stored energy, in fact so compact that it will easily do the job of explaining how Bruce Banner can have so much energy packed inside his body.   The trouble is, the physics of superstrings takes place on much, much, much smaller length and times scales than even the incredibly dense and compact realm of nuclear physics.  Superstrings are a whole new deeper level of reality.

But, the same physics governing superstrings and $n$-branes is reproduced at the much large (yet still atomically tiny) nuclear level of the QCD force.  So we can postulate that highly exotic nuclear structure is somehow self-stabilised in Bruce Banners body, storing vast quantities of energy, like incredibly tiny but super-tensely wound springs.  The subatomic particles involved are the quarks and gluons which are what all  nuclei are made up from. But in Bruce Banner we are postulating extremely exotic states of such matter, normally too unstable to exist, by somehow stabilised by Banner’s exposure to the intense gamma radiation.

So I will call this sort of energetics quark-gluon-super-springs. It really has to be exotic too.  Like, if normal nuclei are plain mono-frequency musical notes, then the nuclear matter in Bruce Banner’s body is like a Mozart symphony.    And somehow this energy is released and catalyses his hulking state via a new type of nuclear-to-chemical energy transition mechanism, which also has to be incredibly exotic.

Since the nuclear physics has to involve nuclei, not atomic electrons, the way hulking can happen has to be through a network of nuclei, and this network has to be virtually the entirety of Banners body.  His body has become one vast nuclear battery, or super-network of “nuclear-springs” (to use the super-spring analogy).

This network must become “excited” by his hormones and emotive neurological states, which must cause global patterns of atomic-nuclei vibrations, and it can only be at a global level that it starts to effect chemistry, since electrons (the prime particles involved in chemical processes) move and vibrate at much larger spatial and longer time scales than nuclei.

Think of the electrons as little gusts of wind, and the nuclei as an array of swings or pendulums.  If the gusts of wind act in concert they can produce vibrations of the pendulums, and if the pendulums swing in orchestrated ways they can generate gusts of wind.  This is the sort of cross-level physics we need to pass energy from nuclear levels up to larger slower chemical levels.

What orchestrates this interplay of vastly different levels of physics are the unique molecules in Banner’s body which we have to postulate were fabricated somewhat miraculously (and on a strictly one-time only basis, which is really what “miraculous” means in this context) by the gamma-ray nuclear test accident he was involved with which gave him hulking powers.

How did such miracle proteins or biomolecules get “fabricated”?   Well, here we are truly into fantasy land.  I would suggest (to a conscientious comic book scifi writer) that the miracle proteins were formed in a complicated highly intricate self-organising milieu of gamma-ray energy and nuclear excitations and chemical transitions, which must have occurred in Banner as a response to the extraordinary high does of gamma energy he received.

But “self-organising” is far too flippant a phrase.  It can be used to justify almost anything semi-miraculous.  And when you have a phrase that can justify almost anything you really have no explanation.  It’s like invoking a “hand of god”.  So there has to be a lot more science involved in trying to explain the self-organising chaos which led to Banner’s unique condition.

Unfortunately, I am going to have to invoke another almost meaningless piece of science.  Darwinian evolution!  It’s not that this is bad science, not at all.  The problem is that Darwinian evolution is such a  general explanation that it really is no explanation.  It is just an umbrella concept for all biological evolution in living systems.  But I will use it anyway.  However, I have to give it a nuclear twist.

Nuclear Darwinism

Here I’m going to use some crazy ideas.  I’m happy with my conclusion, but I’m not sure others will find it palatable.  Here goes.

The thing is, processes at the nuclear scale happen so fast that there could be life at that level of physics but we’d never know it.  The lifetime of a nuclear living system would be so short it would be born and die of old age in the time it takes for us to have a cup of tea and contemplate an experiment to detect such life.  Before we begin the experiment the life would be gone, and a whole new nuclear civilization might be born and then decay before we could communicate with it.  For their part, the nuclear life would think we were so vast and expansive and slowly evolving they’d think we were dead entities, assuming they could somehow detect us.  They would not be able to detect much movement or motion in the world at our level of life..

So here’s how Banner’s body reacted to the gamma ray energy.  It triggered an entire civilisation worth of nuclear life.  And artifacts in the nuclear scale evolution of this life within his nuclei were systematized and coordinated by the vast global does of radiation his entire body received.  The nuclear life used all this energy like it was golden rays of sunlight (to use a solar analogy).  And in an instant to us, their nuclear universe evolved centuries or millenia.

With such huge spans of nuclear time, this life was able to delve into the (to them) incredibly slow world of molecular chemistry, and they (the nuclear life) intelligently fabricated the unique biomolecules in banners body and endowed them with the capacity to globally channel nuclear energy in the form of highly unstable exotic super-spring states which the nuclear sentience also was able to manipulate.  They created a stable nuclear-to-chemical monster mechanism. Only to this life, there would seem to be no monster.  The Hulk was in fact a side-effect which worked on a length and time scale so foreign to the nuclear life that they could not even learn much abut it.

The hulking states is, to this nuclear life, a massively prolonged condition (taking millenia in their subjective psychological time) to form and pass.  In fact, they view the hulking state as a sort of long-term seasonal or climatic event.

What Nuclear Darwinism Has to Achieve for The Hulk

The spawning and chance evolution over the course of a few seconds of a nuclear civilisation which spans Bruce Banners entire body, allowing a global transformation of his physiology.

The nuclear life evolves sentient intelligence which is able to manipulate Bruce Banners biology to trap the gamma ray energy.

In order to replenish the energy spent by Hulk the nuclear intelligence must engineer a mechanism of energy transitions on two directions, one releasing energy into Banner’s cells, causing ultra-strength and super-fast healing.  The second type of cascade must replenish the spent nuclear energy, this would be a slower process.

The super-fast healing would be comparatively trivial for the nuclear intelligence to engineer, once they have energy transfer mechanisms in place, since on the Hulk’s biological time a matter of seconds to would seem like centuries of time to this intelligence.  In fact, to this nuclear sentience the Hulk’s healing would seem exceedingly slow.

They engineer all this because they are symbiotes, they live off the gamma ray energy stored up in Banners atomic nuclei.  They prevent it’s release because it is to their advantage to keep it stored.

Banner’s hormones act as a global channel for the energy transfer, possible in both the directions up and down in energy level cascades.  This is the trickiest pseudo-science aspect to finesse though, and I have not really finished it to my satisfaction.

There are real protein structures in our brains called microfibrils, which have, in some scientific circles, been postulated as channels whereby quantum mechanical states can amplify their exotic character up to macroscopic molecular level.  So why not the same with pure energy?  The physics here needs a bit more thought.  The crude idea is that if microfibrils can amplify superposed quantum states up to macroscopic dimensions, then maybe similar protein structures, acting perhaps in orchestration with exotic hormones, could amplify super-spring energy locked up in Bruce Banner’s nuclei up to macroscopic dimensions enabling his cellular chemistry to tap into this energy.

To summarise so far, I am postulating that the Hulk has superpowers that derive from the initial gamma-ray energy which has been stored deep in the heart of his atomic nuclei, where vast quantities of energy can be wrapped up in tiny volumes of space occupying less than 1% of the space of a typical atom.  But we need more than just energy storage, we need a mechanism of energy transfer and release.  My invented mythology postulates a nuclear sentience that rapidly evolved inside ruce Banner ina  mere few seconds or minutes, and which, for it’s own survival, re-engineered Banner’s physiology on a global scale, so that his entrie body became a condit for storage and release of exotic nuclear states of matter, primarily in the form of nuclear dimension superstring like strucutre, which i am calling “super-springs”.

More then Energy

The hulking superpowers require more than mere pure energy.  To be put to special uses, like cellular repair, super-toughness and super-power metabolic muscle action, the stored nuclear energy needs to be spent on toughening Hulk’s skin and increasing the toughness and strength when his anger hormones and neurological processes become amplified.

My theory is that this amplification happens also primarily on the nuclear level, and only propagates up to the chemical–cellular level as a relatively slow side-effect.  This slowed-down energy release and utilisation stops Hulk from literally burning up from rage.  If his body is analogous to an intricate nuclear-power battery, then when this battery energy is released it would create enough waste heat to vaporize normal body cells.

So Banner/Hulk’s hormone, endocrine and neural system act in a highly fine-tuned way to channel the trapped nuclear energy into raid cell restoration, regrowth, and active toughening.

Why “active toughening”?  The reason is that I have a problem imagining increased muscle bulk alone would make hulk so strong.  I mean, he can lift a Tank for heavens sake, and throw it about a kilometre through the air.  He can survive in the vacuum of space without bursting from the pressure differential, and can swim underwater for prolonged periods.  So his energy utilization is incredible and sophisticated.  It has to be either controlled by some inner symbiotic sentience inside his nuclei, or has been engineered by such sentience to endow him with these amazing survival characteristics.

He is not quite at Wolverine’s level of damage repair and regeneration, but he comes close to it.  Wolverine’s power was a genetic mutation.  In Hulk, I am saying it is a mutation at a nuclear level, not genetic.  It would just be far too improbably that the gamma-bomb radiation magically triggered just the right genetic/DNA mutations to give him hulking powers.  Although, still relatively magical, the nuclear level sentience is, for me personally, the better scifi mythology.

Finally, the active strengthening and toughening is necessary because muscle bulk does not scale in the required way for explaining Hulk’s incredible strength.  If you scale normal human strength up to Hulk’s muscle size, you would get a human capable of lifting maybe a small car, or punching through a 10 inch thick concrete wall.  But Hulk has far stronger strength.  So I postulate that his strength is not proportional to muscle mass, but is rather due to activated muscular energy.  His muscles amplify nuclear power and act like hydraulic systems, only nuclear-hydraulics, not fluid hydraulics, the difference being that nuclear activated systems have millions of times more power than fluid systems.

So Hulk’s strength derives mainly from energy release rather than muscle chemistry.  His muscles are merely a further conduit, along with his neurology and stress hormones, for amplifying the stored nuclear energy in his atomic nuclei.

And the same with his tissue structural toughness.  His toughness is a direct response to pressure and stress on his body and cells, it actively repels bullets and shock waves and lasers, his skin does not merely deflect or absorb shocks, it actively responds to shock, so that the greater the forces penetrating his skin and tissue, the faster the triggered responses his nuclear-energy amplification mechanisms respond — both in absorbing the shocks and storing the energy of them.  This helps explain why Hulk’s nuclear energy is never depleted.  All his fights and battles just re-store most of the energy he uses.  Pretty much in every Hulk story, if you total the amount of energy he is bombarded with, it is easily way more than the total energy he expends to win his battles.

Using Nuclear Darwinism in Scifi

There’s a good “hard scifi”  novel by Robert L. Forward called “Dragons Egg“.  It is the story of one civilization of nuclear-based life forms living on a neutron star which drifts close to our solar system and is discovered by a team of astronauts.   I loved that story because it has no overt violence or gratuitous sex or murder and so forth.  it does have life and death, but in the context of an evolving society and epochs of a civilisation.  It is the story of a civilisation which develops on the neutron star, under the crushing gravitational field and immensely strong magnetic field enveloping the star, and it’s discovery of human life and it’s eventual transcendence.  The human astronauts spend only a few months studying the star, and during this time the life on the star evolves from primitive life equivalent to protozoa, and then human cave-people, and then rapidly (by human time frames) evolves into a modern scientific society and then after a few months of human time, this nuclear life has grown too advanced for the human’s to comprehend.  At first, after about a week, the nuclear life works out how to communicate with the humans, who at first they thought of as gods, but by the end of the next week the nuclear civilisation regards the humans as primitive, and they understand all about human beings.  At the end of the story the nuclear life on the star is god-like compared to the human astronauts.  Thousands of generations of nuclear people have lived and died while the astronauts have aged only a few months.

The crazy idea that Bruce Banner was saved by a similar form of life living inside his body at a nuclear level is sheer fantasy of course, but I think within the parameters of the superhero puzzle game … perhaps only just!  I would just add one more element to the Banner/Hulk mythology.

Completing the Hulk Mythology

The issue is that the gamma-bomb accident took place in a  matter of seconds, which although centuries in nuclear civilisation terms (multiple generations of life and death to nuclear sentience) this is still a bit to fast for a complex scientific civilisation to have evolved.

I think for the evolution of the nuclear sentience inside Banner’s atoms to evolve, it needed to be seeded by some sort of genesis event before the gamma-bomb accident.  So I would add the The Hulk mythology the low-level gamma-radiation doses received during the benign research phases of Bruce Banner’s physics experiments.  This is crucial because it gave Banner a prolonged very slow low-level exposure to the special energetic gamma-rays that he would later use for his protoype gamma-bomb.  (It’s a so-called “non-destructive weapon”, which is a  gross misnomer, since it is designed to knock out life forms, but not buildings, so in fact it is incredibly destructive to life).

The crucial thing is that Banner was exposing himself to the special type of low-level dose, and his entire body received the doses.  This global dosing was what i hypothesise, allowed the nuclear life to evolve inside his atoms, in the heart of his nuclei.  His gamma-ray experiments were like the Sun for our Earth to this nuclear civilisation.  His body’s atoms were It’s continents and planets.

So the gamma-ray bomb accident was more like a propellant, a supernova for the nuclear life that had already evolved inside Banner’s body’s atoms.  They used this event as a super-powered source of tremendous energy they needed to make large-scale sweeping physiological changes to their entire universe.  Their universe is, of course, Banner’s body.  They cannot exist anywhere else by, say, jumping to another body, like fleas, because nuclear life cannot exist where the nuclear energy is lacking, and Banner’s atoms had gradually become tuned to the gamma-ray energy so that highly exotic nuclear structure, in the form of quark-gluon super-spring energetics, and no other human had developed the same adaptations because no one else had been as close to his physics experiments.

The thing is, despite the apparent absurdity of nuclear sentient life, it is not scientifically impossible.  So it falls within acceptable hard scifi parameters, and is thus admissible in the Superhero Puzzle game.  and the cool thing about it is that nuclear life really would have this ultra-fast time evolution according to human perspectives.  They really would evolve from cave-people to modern scientists within days of human time.  And now that we have this concept in our pocket (so-to-speak), we can re-use it for other superhero myths.

It’s a great bit of scifi since it can be re-used for multiple effects when needed.  Anytime we want something with gamma-ray types of energy to do intricate delicate things on a chemical level, then this is your answer.  Use nuclear life, nuclear Darwinism, imagine a world within our world which views us as almost frozen galactic beings, and have fun with this within reasonable scientific parameters.


This post was hard to write because there were so many diversions I wanted to take and expand upon, which, for brevity, I had to resist.  Also, when I get carried away with the science then the humour tends to fall away too.  So I apologise for that.  I’m sure a bit later, when I revise some of these posts, some humour will creep back in.

I hope readers will pick up on a few and write their own extensions.  For school science you can pick pretty much any part of this new Hulk mythology and run with it to imagine a lot more detail to the story.  Superstrings and nuclear life are however firmly in the realm of scifi, and might remain that way throughout time in our universe, but that does not mean you cannot use real physical laws and principles to write some amazing scifi fantasy.

One place to begin learning about the superstring type “super-springs” is Professor Leonard Susskind’s book The Black Hole Wars.  He uses the “spinning propellers on tips of propellers on tips of propellers … ad infinitum” analogy to describe string theory energetics.  Also, check out his freely available lectures on String Theory delivered at Stanford University. They can be downloaded from iTunes or from YouTube or directly from Stanford University online courses.  Susskind does an ok job of describing the analogies between superstring excitations and quark-gluon nuclear dynamics, which is the basis for my hulking theory.

Most physicists will know this part of the history of superstring theory.  The idea that nuclear forces involves string-like excitations arose from empirical data from nuclear energy data.  It turned out that quarks (which are what protons and neutrons are made out of) are indeed held together like tiny springs, and the biding force is mediated by gluons.  But when the theory of string excitations was worked out for a full-blown quantum theory it failed, because it predicted unseen excitations, unseen particles.  When it was realised that one of these unwanted particles had a spin=2, and if the strings were imagined to be billions and billions of times smaller than supposed from the quark-gluon interactions, then the idea of superstring theory was born.   The idea of Strings was abandoned as a theory for the nuclear forces, but became instead reborn as a fundamental theory of all forces of nature, not just the nuclear forces, and including the gravitational force.  this was a huge deal, because no one has since found any better quantum version of gravity.  So the unwanted nuclear scale spin=2 particle  was reinterpreted as the highly desirable gravtiton, the hypothetical carrier of the (quantum version) of the force of gravity.

The “spinning propellers on tips of propellers on tips of propellers … ad infinitum” model relates to superstring excitations.  The basic idea is that experimental physics can only probe up to certain energies, currently this is around a trillion electronvolts.  Any higher energetic physical processes involving single particles lies beyond current experimental technology.  But physicists, and their engineering colleagues, are always trying to extend these boundaries. The problem with superstring thery is that the smallest energy excitations of superstrings are like spinning propellers on the tips of large slow propellers, and the smallest interesting energetics are frustratingly  beyond current experimental limits.

Aha!  But for scifi that gives us a lot of “wiggle room” for imagining exotic physics.  And this is something like what I’m proposing happens with Bruce Banner/The Hulk.  His body is utilising extreme stringy energetics, deep within his atomic nuclei.

To “experimentally see” all the excitations of superstrings is like trying to see a fast spinning propeller on the tip of a bigger propeller which is spinning slowly.  Only with fundamental strings (of the kind physicists imagine matter is truly composed from) we would be needing to look at tinier propellers spinning ultrafast on the tips of the tiny propellers.  And in string theory there are even tinier propellers spinning on the tips of those tiny propellers, and so on, down in scale to all orders.

The smaller the propeller the faster it spins.  The faster it spins the more energetic is is, and the harder to detect, since it’s motion will be so blurred it will seem invisible.  For superstring theory, with the superstrings modelled as the spinning propellers, each single fundamental string being one propeller with all of it’s sub-propellers on the tips, this implies that all foreseeable experiments would not be able to detect more than a blur in the motion of the lowest energy excitations or largest visible tip “propellers”.

The model of stringy-interactions for nuclear physics is actually still very useful.  But it has become an approximate theory, or a rough model, not an exact theory.  When the string theory is miniaturised to the Planck scale (a billion-billion times  smaller than the nuclear scale) and a certain type of symmetry is included in the physics (implying the existence of so-called super-partner particles for every known particle in nature) then the nuclear String theory morphs naturally into modern Superstring Theory.

Superstring theory has big problems though, one of which is that the length and time and energy scales involved in studying superstrings is far, far beyond current experiments.  So physicists cannot really study superstrings with experiments, it is currently studied only mathematically, which is a great weakness for the theory, since no one can tell which branches of the mathematics to explore, and superstrings seem to allow so many mathematical options.  It has become a thorny minefield of theoretical physics and is in desperate need of experimental supporting evidence (or contrary evidence, since for healthy science practice one should never have emotional hopes for a theory).

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Superhero Puzzle #24 — Explain Spiderman’s “Spidey Sense”

Another one of Peter Parker’s abilities after being bitten by the radioactive spider, is that he can sense danger. It’s like a sixth sense, he gets a nervous tingling when there is human danger or crime about to happen.


“That tingling sensation…”

To give this a plausible scientific basis you need to understand a few things. First, the spidey-sense seems to only operate when human beings are involved. Secondly, it has to be local, it has a radius of effectiveness. And third, it is not very specif, it just gives Parker a sense of imminent danger, and if specific at all it is only in that it is normally something sinister, not something like an accident about to happen. So what is your take on the plausible science behind this super-power?

I conjured up a shortlist of candidate explanations, some way are more scifi than sci-fact.

  • Psionic fields?
  • Mind-reading?
  • Thought-wave sensitivity?
  • Precognition, a sense of events in the near future in spacetime?
  • Odour reception sensitivity?

Psionic fields are the most mythical. Their basis in realistic physics is discussed in other Superhero puzzle articles, namely those about Professor Xavier and Jean Gray.

Precognition is not completely outlandish. The past or present is indeed influenced by the future according to modern quantum physics. The trouble with the real science in this case is that quantum mechanics forbids us from using information about the future in any useful way. But it at least provides a cool scifi loop-hole for some sort of low-level precognitive superpowers. The superhero’s mind would merely need to be ultra-sensitive to information encoded in electromagnetic fields on a quantum scale, and there is some cool physics there involving real effects like entanglement and superposed states of systems. But I want to leave that science for another article. It’s not how I would write a good mythical explanation for Spiderman’s spidey-sense.

Mind-reading can be dismissed since that’s not what the spidey sense is about. If it was it’d be a bit weird, like mind-reading without the ability to know the thoughts in the other’s mind, only their vague threatening quality and that alone.

Which leaves thought-wave sensitivity or odour reception sensitivity. These are my two preferred choices. But what are thought waves and how would they work as the means for spidey-sense? why is odour sensitivity on the list?

Odours are the primary means for low level emotional triggering of neural pathways in brains. But my short-list should have used the term “pheromones” perhaps rather than “odours”. This happens in humans as well as other animals and even plants (though not with brains in pants of course! In plants odour reception is not olfactory of course, it is a far more direct cellular-to-cellular response). Odours trigger very deep but very simple and primitive emotions, which is why it matches spidey-sense, since Parker’s sensitivity to threats is very vague and low-level, so low level that he can never pin-point what the threat is exactly, it is just an alert signal like a police alarm bell. Also, insects and arachnids are highly sensitive to volatile chemicals like pheromones. Humans also possess sensitivity to pheromones but this sense is often completely swamped by our other stronger senses. Still, pheromone sensitivity acts pretty much in an olfactory mode, so like a smell in other words, it’s just we have no conscious sensation of the smell of pheromones, they operate on our brains in a more primitive way.

Actually, as an interesting aside, this sort of non-conscious response to environmental stimuli is a god illustration of how it’s possible for animals to look conscious when in fact they are not. Not all animal responses involve conscious activity. So we really can have little idea of the type of level of sentient conscious awareness possessed by other species. Although, it is entirely reasonable to suppose animals that have a sense of smell, taste, touch, hearing and sight experience similar conscious qualia to humans. But the exact nature and characteristics of their conscious inner thoughts is very mysterious. It’s possible most animals have no conscious thought, since if they did then they’d probably be capable of much greater levels of communication and abstract thinking. But this is another topic. Back to spidey-sense now.

Now, to complete the pheromone explanation for spidey-sense we need to just add that plenty of trace volatile chemicals are excreted by human’s when we are under stress or hightened emotional states. In fact, many biologists will tell you that fear can be literally smelled. People who are extremely fearful will excrete volatile hormone-like chemicals, which are really natural by-products of their bodies response to a threat, typical is the release of adrenalin. But although adrenalin might not have a detectable odour, other chemical by-products of the bodies response the fear will have a smell or low-level olfactory receptivity which can faintly, almost subconsciously, be detected by other people, or even the person themselves. I’ve often smelled my own fear or anxiety.

What Peter Parker received from the radioactive spider bite is a whole bunch of spider-like abilities, amplified by his human DNA and transmorgrified into super-powers. The spidey-sense is utterly plausible, and perhaps is the easiest to believe.

You can also conjure up an explanation involving thought-waves, wince thoughts are associated with neurological activity, electrical activity, and this is easily detected by medical equipment for instance. Spiderman might have a simple enhanced receptivity and sensitivity to electrical fields, and thoughts will produce subtle qualitatively discernible pattern in electric fields in surrounding space around a person’s skull. The trouble with this as an explanation for spidey-sense is that metals block electric fields, and electric field intensity decays rapidly with distance from the source of the electrical activity. Why is that, do you know?

Paradoxically it is because electricity is a very strong force. Electric charges which are what respond to electric fields, move so fast and are effected so powerfully by even weak electric fields that they all move and accelerate and settle into configurations which rapidly set-up cancellation effects in surrounding space. Electric charges that are free to move thus cancel out effects of electric fields in nearby space.

I like the following analogy for this paradoxical strength of the electric force: a really sexy person attracts people of the opposite sex so strongly that they very soon have a sexual excitement cancellation effect, since who wants to be put under the spell of a sexy person who is already engaged, am I right? You desire someone who is available. Or at least you will if you are sane.

Why do we say thought waves are “waves” by the way? Thoughts are not anything physical really, but they are closely correlated with physical brain activity, neural activity, flows of ionic signals through our brains, nerves impulses. It’s all pretty electricla in nature, but facilitated by chemicals that open and close ion channels in our nerve cells. These facilitating chemicals act very fast, they are called neurotransmitters. But what truly “transmit“ neural messages around in our brains are ionic (often metallic) salts. Sodium, calcium and potassium ions for instance. They aren’t really waves. They are patterns of electrical ionic activity, plus the neurotransmitters emitted rapidly by neuron cells, in the brain. But these patterns of neural activity have been studied and recorded, and you can see wave-like patterns in them, when plotted by computer software they can come out looking like music or voice recordings, they look like sound waves, but only because some computer engineer has graphed them in a similar way. Really they are nothing like sound waves.

It is true that all common signals in nature of any kind can be described by mathematical functions, which mean plotted on a graph on an appropriate scale will look a lot like voice or music signals. Such signals can always be decomposed into simple frequencies, which can thus be termed “waves” even though they might not be generated by anything we would think of as producing waves.

This can lead not an introduction to Fourier Analysis—the mathematical theory of how any signal, no matter how complex, can be decomposed into a bunch of simple waves and thus then can be compressed into a simpler data stream to be broadcast or transmitted efficiently.

But I don’t think thought waves are a good candidate for the medium of spidey-sense. So at another time I might be able to expand upon the topic of Fourier Analysis. Not sure for what Superhero though?

So why not thought-waves for spidey sense? One reason is their complexity, and spidey-sense is, remember, not very complex, it’s a fairly vague tingling produced by people’s thoughts. But thoughts have greater influence over distance on hormones and pheromones than on electric fields, and electric fields are the only sure way to detect thought waves.

BTW: have comic writers ever used the following interesting character of spidey-sense: which is that it’s a totally hidden superpower. No criminal would ever know Spiderman has this power, since it’s not visible, it is never clear in it’s operation, and manifests only as an uncanny ability of Parker’s at being able to be super-frosty and alert. In theory, this is one superpower only Peter Parker need ever know about. I’ve never read of this hidden nature of spidey-sense being used overtly in the plot of a story, perhaps because it is really implicitly used each time Peter Parker feels the tingling sensation. How could you write a plot-line where it is absolutely essential that he uses spidey-sense for it’s hidden character? Maybe when a friend or enemy is so close and insidious or veiled and menacing a threat that Parker cannot do anything other than get a warning out to an ally about the threat.

Actually, when I think about it, I’m sure there is a story where something like this happens. Nice excuse to go and browse a good few years worth of back issues.

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Superhero Puzzle #00 — Who is Your Favourite Superhero?

Ha! A quiz only you know the answer to, that’s the kind of test they should hand out in school. Seriously!

This post is just a backtrack, to explain the whole Superhero Puzzle series. These are little essays on comics and scifi that I began when writing physics and mathematics education resources. Trouble is, a lot of it turns out to be biological, so did not quite fit into my resources. There is still some cool mathematics and physics. But since I do not often get to teach biology I thought I’d publish this stuff online here on WordPress for anyone to copy, shamelessly steal, borrow, alter and use in whatever way they see fit.

I will use the word “Superhero” for both masculine and feminine characters.

Writing Superhero Puzzles or scifi quiz material is a game. The rules are to try to explain superpowers or their uses, using only published comics or scifi books or movies, and to do so using the most realistic and plausible science possible.

There are no winners and losers in such a game, and it can be real fun, sometimes even really funny, which is the type of game I like. You can easily extend the game into something more competitive or serious if you like, by including a quiz, or some required calculations.

One way I prefer to have the game extended is to read someone’s comments and their suggestions for improvements, or their critique. It’s a strange concept though — to critique fictional literature! But that’s again, part of the fun of this game. Fiction can be critiqued. To me, a fantasy story that is more believable is the better story. Some readers and movie-goers prefer plain eye-candy, more sex, more violence, more gags. If that’s your preference then the Superhero Puzzles are probably not your cup of tea. To enjoy Superhero Puzzles you probably will likely enjoy fantasy, but you will also enjoy realism and mixing life with art, and for maximum enjoyment you would probably be the type of person who tries to live their fantasy. And to live your dreams and fantasies you have to keep them well within the known laws of physics. We all know what happens to people who try to defy the law of gravity.

The numerical order of the puzzles is entirely chaotic. Some form short related sequences, but most of the time they just correspond to the order the ideas have occurred in my mind. And I will not post them in order, since I want to be happy with them before posting them online.

That’s about it for this introduction. My favourite superhero’s when I was a kid were, in roughly order of favourites, The Silver Surfer (aka. Norrin Radd, because he was cool and yet tragic), The Submariner (Prince Namor, because I loved swimming in the ocean too), The Flash (Barry Allen, because I loved pure natural speed), Iron Man (the armour tech is so cool), Thor (duh! A god! And I loved Greek mythology too, but the Marvel version of Hercules was not as cool as Thor), and Mon-El (the teenager in the Justice League who had Superman’s powers but could only use them one at a time, plus he could see through lead, and he was not affected by kryptonite). Now, as a mature adult (ahem!) my favourites have veered more towards the feminine: Emma Frost, Psylocke (Elizabeth Braddock), Wanda Maximoff, Natasha Romanov (The Black Widow), to name a few. I was always too much of an idealist to have any favourite supervillians. Galactus is a good one though, since his “evilness” is based upon his station of near deity-hood (humans are like ants to him), which is one argument for why Thor could also have turned out bad, and thus equally it’s an argument for why Thor is so noble and good.

The megalomania of Magneto always irked me. How could a Jewish kid who survived the holocaust become so much like Hitler? I never “got” that, despite the obvious irony of it. It’s a psychological flaw I suppose, in my character, since even writing that last sentence was stressful for me. I’ve always had severe psychological trouble writing the name of that historical dictator from Germany. It’s my “Macbeth” word. It’s so tainted with real evil in my mind that I want to retract that sentence as I write! So, I will probably not write much about supervillians. But wherever there are some interesting scientific possibilities, then I will give it a go, and Magneto does have some scientifically interesting powers.

Namor, the Submariner

Prince Namor, alias The Submariner. One of my favourites.

When I was younger I read that Namor was in love with Sue Storm for a while, this was before he married his Atlantean princess sweetheart, Lady Dorma. But before he was married I resented Reed Richards for ruining this human-atlantean romance. It’s funny how Stan Lee’s comic world seemed so full of real emotion, even though it was so much violence and action. I really enjoyed the stories more than the action scenes.

The superhero’s featured in my Superhero Puzzles will no doubt reflect my biases. So I apologise in advance for that. I hope a few readers send in their own suggestions for scientific appraisal.

Thor, by the way, poses immense problems for good Superhero Puzzles, because Asgardian technology is often considered to be akin to “magic”. And what can a scientist do when confronted with magic? Well, I’m sure we can think of a few things.

So go ahead and write back a comment. Who’s your favourite superhero, and why?

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There’s a lot more to write about telepathy. It’s a cool superpower because it involves the most mysterious phenomenon known to humankind, namely our own minds.

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Superhero Puzzle #9 — How does Prof Xavier’s Mind Work?

Hope y’all enjoy this one. It’s a bit more philosophical than other superhero puzzles.

First, here’s a tiny amount of non-fiction: one of the best books you can currently read on “How the Mind Works” is titled How the Mind Works. It’s written by the linguist and evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker. It’s a great book, so read it! But sadly it will not tell you a single thing about how human beings can think thoughts. It’s about brain and psychology, not about thinking and g=cognition. The difference is crucial to understand if you want to be a scientist who specializes in psychology and related fields. The brain’s workings are almost purely physical, involving neural systems and impulses received to and from sensory organs. And at a high level of connection the human brain exhibits psychological traits, such as emotions, neurosis, language, mathematical skill and so forth.

But thinking, the thoughts that cross your mind, the mind, sentient consciousness, all these subjective states of human existence are not touched upon at all by Pinker’s opus. So it is really a book on how the brain works, although at a very high level of neurology and psychology. But it has nothing to do with the mind. The mind is that subjective aspect of thinking and consciousness. The mind cannot easily be studied scientifically because there is no firm definition of mental phenomena, precisely because by auxiliary definitions these phenomena (thoughts, ideas, abstractions) are entirely abstract and non-physical. They exist for each of us only as subjective qualia, not as objectively tangible objects that we can point to or touch or see or smell. Just to be perfectly clear, the brain waves revealed by electro-encephelographs and CT scans of neural activity are objective physical things, so they are not mental events. They are physical events that are merely correlated with your subjective perceptions. In philosophy the subjective content of minds are the things that cannot be physically communicated, and they are termed “qualia”, or plural “qualé”, they are things like the actual “redness” of things coloured red, the “greeness” of things coloured by green light, the “blueness” of blue coloured pills, the raw searing thing you feel when in pain, the raw qualitative feeling of flavours in food and odours, the inner knowledge of te reality of physical impossibilities like the existence of a perfect circle or transcendental numbers like π.

These ideas are fairly important for a rational discussion of the completely fantastical and irrational phenomenon involved in superhero and scifi stories about telepathic and telekinetic superpowers. These are tow very different superpowers. Telekinesis is the power to move physical objects with the mind or brain. Telepathy is the power to read or perceive in some way, the thoughts of other people, or the power to “get inside their mind” to manipulate their thoughts or project illusions into their minds.

This article is about telepathy. Telekinesis will be discussed in another Superhero Puzzle article.

Who is your favourite telepath? I don’t have one, though I quite like the character Psylocke (Elizabeth “Betsy” Braddock). She uses ”psi-waves“, which in one story were shown to be pretty darn powerful, Betsy was tricked by the Shadow King into producing a psi-wave removing all mutant telepathy and allowing him to control every mind on Earth. Often telepathy and telekinesis are linked. For instance, in a foolish mistake, the Shadow King expanded his powers dangerously allowing his personal nexus to be exposed. Betsy defeated Farouk, sacrificing her telepathy to keep him trapped within her astral shadow form. Jean Grey attempted to help Betsy regain her powers safely. But in the process, she gained vast telekinetic abilities instead.

Psylocke, Elizabeth Braddock.

The awesome Psylocke, Elizabeth Braddock. (She’s British!)

The shadow King’s psionic nexus is an interesting concept dreamed up by Marvel writers. I think I can make use of it in the discussion of realistic science behind telepathy and telekinesis.

Psionic Nexus

The Marvel mythology states that,

“The Shadow King is allegedly a multiversal manifestation of the dark side of the human consciousnesses, spawned by the first nightmare. When the mutant Amahl Farouk power developed, Farouk psychically controlled those around him, feeding on the shadows in their souls and secretly merging with the Shadow King, who had been transferring from host to host since the dawn of humanity.”

The psionic nexus is the subspace of the psychic realm where the Shadow King merges all the darkness in human consciousness. the “psychic realm” is of course all the thoughts and feeling of sentient beings. Sometimes this realm is accessed only in real time, but other telepaths can enter it with their mind to explore memory, and sometimes the future. How? The future of human memory, that’s how. This is conceivable if we suppose physical time-evolution is only loosely linked to physical time. And as we will see, since the physical and the psychic can be considered to be distinct aspects of reality, this is all fairly plausible, although more in the domain of speculative philosophy than empirical science.

This is really fascinating for comic book geeks. You see, this psionic nexus idea links-in nicely to the philosophy of abstract realism which I will explain below when i get to the section on Mind–Brain interaction and then some pseudo-science behind telepathy.

Other Telepaths and Related Characters

When I was a teenager I liked The Vision (the good-guy android son of ultrabad android Ultron), whose superpower is density alteration, but he also has heat beams from his eyes, hence his name, and so naturally I liked Vision’s lover, Wanda Maximoff. Although she did not have telepathy, she had “probability altering” power, which was funky because it was not entirely predictable.

Another true telepath is Emma Frost, another X-Mutant. But here powers are strangely coupled, she can make her body as hard as diamond, and hence impermeable to bullets and (oddly) shock resistant, go figure that one! But when she does the diamond form she cannot use her telepathy, and vice versa. So somehow here body structural morphism is coupled to her telepathic powers, so one turns off the other.

But I guess the most famous telepath in comic literature is Professor Charles Xavier, aka. Professor X, founder of the X-Men Academy, the school for superhero mutants. Xavier teams up with “The Beast”, Hank McCoy, who is a brilliant scientist, a genius in fact. They build a device called Cerebro, which amplifies Xavier’s telepathic powers, and in addition enables him to locate the position of any mutant human on Earth. Quite a handy machine if you mission is to save fellow mutants form harm and foster young mutants who have been neglected by society, which indeed is Xavier’s self-imposed mission in life.

Charles Xavier (Professor X)

Professor Xavier, he’s confined to a wheelchair since he is only telepathic, not telekinetic.

Xavier’s most gifted student is Jean Gray, a “level 10” mutant (which means “totally off the superpower scale”, in other words, the limit of her power is so great that it is unknown). Jean can not only read minds, she can implant thoughts and memories and false reality into another person’s consciousness, indelibly altering their brain. Puzzle: why would I claim this?

Jean Gray (alias, the Phoenix) also has telekinetic ability, her mind is so powerful at can span vats distances and move physical objects. The puzzle for today is to provide a plausible scientific explanation or mythology for the powers of people like Xavier and Gray.

Jean Grey, The Phoenix

Jean Grey, aka The Phoenix. a “Level 10” mutant.

There are a few other interesting telepathic characters, but I won’t list them all here. No doubt I’ll find occasion to write about them in other contexts.

Brain and Mind Interaction

It is a mystery to current science how the brain and mind interact. Some scientists believe fully that the brain’s neural activity gives rise to the emergence of mind. But many deeper thinking philosophers tend to argue that the Mind is more fundamental and it is what influences the brain. So there is a totally unknown science here, and possibly a forever unknowable mystery, because the mind cannot really be studied scientifically, at least not fully, because it is not an objective phenomenon.

It’s important for the scifi to understand this clearly. You are free to define the Mind as merely equivalent and identical to the patterns of brain activity which occur when a human (or other sentient creature) experiences qualia. But please try to understand that that would not be my definition. You might as well give that definition of “mind” a completely different word, like “superbrain” or “memon” or whatever. It is certainly not what I mean by the word “mind”. At one level this is mere vocabulary and semantics. But it makes a big difference to a discussion!

So for me, “mind” is equivalent only to the nonphysical aspects of mental impressions, in other words, mind is the purely subjective content of consciousness. It correlates with objective physical brain states, but only in a statistical manner. And there is no logical way in which an objective physical pattern of activity can give rise to emergence of subjective qualia. It just cannot happen. Having objective reality originate subjective reality would be like having a tiny droplet of water spontaneously turn into a fire-breathing dragon, or probably even more illogical and unlikely, perhaps more like a politician who hates people and will do anything possible to offend as many people as they can at all times, or like an astronomer who does not believe in the existence of stars, or a stock-broker who has a deep phobia about making money, or a … well, … I’m sure you get the idea.

My point is that if there is no reality to the nonphysical aspects of sentient thought, then there is no such thing as mind by my definition. And I’m happy with this, because I’d rather have a clear-cut definition of something that might not be real than a sloppy confused definition of an entirely superfluous notion. The idea and alternative definition whereby mind is equated with physical patterns in a brain is bogus because it adds nothing truly new or important, it is merely a new label for a special bunch of neural patterns. And it is not what I wish to discuss in this scifi puzzle.

And since we are discussing scifi here, we can take the reasonable supposition for our superhero mythology, that Mind and Brain have a strong interaction and feedback. This is the main thesis behind telepathy and telekinesis. There has to be a strong Mind–Brain interaction. The brain states (which are neurological and biological) influence mental states (which are subjective qualia). But how? Let’s delay the answer to this for a few paragraphs. Have a think about it and read on.

So if you can alter the brain activity of a person then you can, in principle, influence their thinking because you will be able to imprint sensory information upon their short or long term memory. This is easy to understand, provided you do have, (1) the ability to control the electrochemical activity of a person’s brain, and (2) the supposition that Brain states feed and trigger qualia in Mind.

The ability to influence brain activity is not science fiction, it is medically possible, and has been demonstrated in published research. It’s a bit freaky, but giving a person “fictional” sensations is entirely possible. But it begs the question of whether the sensations are really fictional or not! Obviously, to the person who’s brain is being messed with, the experiences are not fiction, they are totally real, and you can see this in the way their brain responds to the stimulus of the neurologist. Such experiments of course are highly controlled and are done only with the permission of the patients, or sometimes occur under controlled conditions but accidentally during brain surgery such as removal of brain tumours.

The Telepathy Mechanism

The main response to this puzzle that I had was that there is no mechanism. Not a conventional one. At first you seek a physical explanation, because even in comic fantasy a good physics explanation is always the most satisfying. But the usual forces of nature will not work in the case of telepathy, because the spatial extent of forces is not sufficient for strong teleapathy, and Xavier and Jean Gray are telepathic over vast distances, and with Cerebro they basically can cover the whole planet Earth. So an explanation using one brain’s electromagnetic influence on another, no matter how intricate, is simply not going to pass mustard, because the physical effects are far too weak to be believable. But I will mention one loop-hole that is worth discussing at another time.

The loop-hole would be that telepaths have reserves of energy which allow their brains to have neurological influence over distances that surpass normal laws of physics. The idea here is that scifi telepathy does not have to alter the known laws of physics too much, it just has to require that telepaths have a unique ability to extend control over brain processes that in some way jump across vast distances in space. So you need to invent some mechanism whereby telepaths can, in effect, merge their brain impulses with another human, targeting them across reasonable spans of space. And how would this be possible (in closest plausible science terms)?

Have a think about that, it’s another puzzle. How to extend the spatial reach of brain wave interference, et cetera.

Today I want to explore a different mode of telepathy. And don’t forget, it’s cool to have similar superpowers which originate from quit different modes. Superman’s strength originates from our “yellow” Sun. The Hulk’s strength from his rage hormones hyper-activated on gamma-ray energy.

The Other Telepathy (Non-Mechanism)

For me, the better form of fantasy telepathy results from the Mind. The human mind is amazing, and we do not appreciate how amazing it is, because we live with one all day, and it seems to make us feel pretty stupid most of the time, right? Well, if you have a tough job or are studying advanced mathematics, then for sure it will make you feel stupid most of the time.

The truly special thing about the human mind is that it escapes routinely away from physical reality and explores the realm of abstractions. This is what mathematicians do for a living, but artists also have highly developed imaginations. When you imagine fictions or impossible creations (impossible physically, not logically) then you will be in the same mental state that I’m trying to describe. You might not think it is so amazing, since you will seem to be able to escape into pure thought as easily as closing your eyes to dream.

You will admit though, that having a truly original and brilliant thought, maybe something no one has ever thought of before, is quite hard, and no amount of hard effort will necessarily help your mind to conceive of such a beautiful idea. But it does happen. Besides, don’t be too humble. Just because someone has already had the thought you’ve just thought of does not make it any less beautiful. Provided it was your own thought and not a memory form having read or heard someone else mention it. You can still claim originality. You should claim originality. I think this is one of the triumphs of human life, to have such original thoughts. It simply doesn’t matter that in time someone may have had the thought or idea before you. You should own it anyway. Time is irrelevant — unless you seek fame, so just don’t worry about fame — just be free and detached from such vanity, then you can truly enjoy your amazing mind.

The crucial thing for my puzzle solution is that thoughts and ideas are essentially abstract. They exist independently of any physical world. Numbers and geometric objects have worldy names we all learn about in school, but those names change form culture to culture and classroom to classroom, the idea of the numbers and shapes do not change. This is because what the languages point to is abstract, it is independent of any language. Sentient aliens across the galaxies will have the same abstract idea of “threeness” that we have when we learn about triangles, and they will have the same abstract feel of perfect rotational symmetry that we have when we think about circles and spheres, only aliens will not call them “circles” or “spheres” or “numbers” or “triangle” or use the same symbols like “3”. It doesn’t matter what you call an abstraction. It will have it’s own essence. In geometry this comes out as an imperfect rendering when we try to draw a shape, with numbers the essence is closer to being revealed when a child makes three brush strokes to indicate a score of “3”, or gathers three small pebbles to say the same. This is what abstractions are about. They are pure essence. They are spiritual realities of a sort. And we can only ever approximate their essence. And they exist where we do or not exist, they exist without any Mind embodied in a physical creature to think of them and imagine them.

Computer software, or rather, the algorithms that software implements, have a similar sort of existence. They are pure ideas, and a computer scientist merely pulls them out of the realm of ideas and instantiates them in some sort of coded language which a computer can “interpret”. What’s important is not the particular software, but the pure idea of the algorithm behind the software. The same algorithm could have been written in any of hundreds of known computer languages.

So here, briefly, is my take on how this abstract realm form of telepathy could operate. The telepath uses their Mind to influence the realm of abstractions. This is the amazing power. altering abstract reality is not easy. They cannot just go and change the numerical value of π for example, nor change the idea of a perfect circle or the three-dimensionality and six-faceted nature of a cube. such abstractions are fixed and immutable by collective sentient societal contracts of reasoning (conventions, linguistics, dictionaries, etc.).

But what can be altered are the fluid abstractions. And what is a fluid abstraction? It is an idea that is not fixed. What’s an example? Well, it’s hard to say or think of many, but there is one obvious type of abstract phenomenon which is fluid, and that is the soul of a sentient creature. The thoughts and identity, the subjective personality, the Mind of a person. This is a fluid abstraction. So telepaths use their Mind to influence other Minds. This is “performed” not in physical space, but in the space of Ideas. My favourite term for this realm of ideas is the Mindscape.

I prefer “Mindscape” to “Mindspace” because the realm of ideas is not of fixed dimension or geometry, it transcends geometry and other such notions, because it actually contains such ideas as sub-spaces, or sub-scapes.

This, in summary, is how ultra-telepaths can be mythologised. Their power is due to where Mind’s roam free, a place that really is no place, but is a world without boundary, a realm we all inhabit whenever we think, but (the scifi myth goes) only telepaths can get into this realm and mess it up for others, and thus mess with your mind. A scary power for sure, but one that has a terrific scifi pedigree. If only more writers used this deeper philosophical pseudo-scientific background explanation. It’d be way cool!

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There’s a lot more to write about telepathy.  It’s a cool superpower because it involves the most mysterious phenomenon known to humankind, namely our own minds.


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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