The Science Behind Iron Man's Super Suit After learning of an evil plot that puts the world at peril, billionaire weapons inventor Tony Stark designs a super-armored suit that helps him foil the plan and save the earth. Prof. James Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes, talks about the science of the action flick Iron Man.
NPR logo

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/90190973/90190960" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Science Behind Iron Man's Super Suit

Listen to this 'Talk of the Nation' topic

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/90190973/90190960" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

Over the weekend the movie "Iron Man" brought in kids, adults and 100 million dollars on its opening weekend. The movie stars Robert Downey Jr. as Marvel Comics character Tony Stark, the billionaire industrialist and inventor who creates a high-tech suit with a built-in intelligent computer that turns him into a superhero.

(Soundbite of movie "Iron Man")

Mr. ROBERT DOWNEY JR.: (As Tony Stark) Day 11, test 37, configuration 2.0. For lack of a better option, Dummy is still on fire safety. If you douse me again and I'm not on fire, I'm donating you to City College.

All right, nice and easy. Seriously. Just going to start off with one-percent thrust capacity. In three, two, one...

(Soundbite of rocket blast)

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) OK. Please don't follow me around with it either, because I feel like I'm going to catch on fire spontaneously. Just stand down. If something happens, then come in. And again, let's bring it up to 2.5. Three, two, one...

(Soundbite of rocket)

(Soundbite of bounce landing)

Mr. DOWNEY: (As Tony Stark) Yeah. I can fly.

CONAN: But can he fly outside of the Octoplex (ph)? Anyway, get out your notebooks, superhero wannabes. Joining us now is James Kakalios, a physicist and author of "The Physics of Superheroes." He's with us from the studios at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Nice to have you on the program today.

Dr. JAMES KAKALIOS (Physics, University of Minnesota; Author, "The Physics of Superheroes"): Nice to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And listeners, if there's a superhero power that you've ever wanted, give us a call. We'll figure out the physics. It's a tall order, I know. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. And James Kakalios, after watching the movie, well, how feasible is it to create that "Iron Man" suit?

Dr. KAKALIOS: It's very feasible with one major exception.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And what's that problem?

Dr. KAKALIOS: The power supply. They - and they address that beautifully in the movie with a little MacGuffin, a little suspension of disbelief. The best superhero movies and superhero comic books are those that require only one suspension of disbelief, only one miracle exemption from the laws of nature.

We know how to make jet packs, say, and presumably one could do it in boot jets with stabilizers in the hand, the way he developed in the movie. We can make directed-energy weapons. We can do a lot of this. The problem is having the power to run them all.

Jet packs that-- like we were all promised back in the '50s and '60s, that we would be taking to work now in the year 2000, jet packs exists, but the problem is that they're - it takes a lot of energy to lift you up and to fly you someplace. And so you can take them to work, provided you only live about 30 seconds from where you live.

So - the one suspension of disbelief there was the arc reactor that he developed, that he miniaturized in a cave that is able to provide, according to the movie, three gigajoules in one second, and could run something big for about 15 minutes, from which you could figure out that it can actually put out a little under three trillion joules of energy.

To give you a sense of how much that is, the human body uses about just only eight million joules of energy per day. So if you had a trillion joules to bound around, yeah, you probably could fly.

CONAN: And you could also light the city of Los Angeles for some considerable period of time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KAKALIOS: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. It's the equivalent of having his own little nuclear power plant, actually probably more so, embedded in his chest.

CONAN: And once you got over this little suspension-of-disbelief problem, how'd you like the picture?

Dr. KAKALIOS: Oh, I thought it was excellent. It was one of - if not the best superhero movie, one of the top three. It featured an engineer as a superhero and the superhero as engineer.

In that clip that you played earlier, we see him testing, we see him going through and developing his system, trying it out, debugging it. We see him with a soldering iron, and he apparently knows which end of the soldering iron to hold onto. Aside from the arc reactor and maybe just a couple of others things that seem to defy disbelief...

CONAN: Well, Tony Stark almost certainly had one of those very fancy soldering guns you see on late night TV. Doesn't matter which end you hold onto.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KAKALIOS: No, but he was using an old-school one.

CONAN: Ah!

Dr. KAKALIOS: He was using the same kind of soldering iron that we have in the lab. So a lot of it was very well done. A few problems, of course, you know, he gets knocked around. Not giving any spoilers, but there's various battles and presumably he managed to absorb the shocks of this and not get turned into jelly inside his suit. So that's a good thing and...

CONAN: Got some of those inertial dampers from "Star Trek."

Dr. KAKALIOS: Apparently, apparently. And then one thing that - apparently Gwyneth Paltrow has a superpower that's demonstrated at the end of the movie. We see her character, Pepper Potts, running around escaping from the villain in seven-inch-high stiletto high heels...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KAKALIOS: And running over metal grating...

CONAN: Grating, yes.

Dr. KAKALIOS: And I caught this and my teenage daughter and my wife, it was the first thing they brought up. We had a debate whether that was a superpower or the shoes were CGI or how they were doing that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I'll choose to believe magic. Let's get some listeners in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And let's go to Erica, Erica is with us from Phoenix, Arizona.

ERICA (Caller): Hello. My fantasy as a superhero or superpower to have would be the combustion that the girl in "Hellboy" has...

Dr. KAKALIOS: Ah.

ERICA: Where she can light herself on fire and explode and survive.

CONAN: Aha.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: You don't want the seven-inch stiletto heels that can run over metal grates.

ERICA: I don't wear heels as it is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, James Kakalios, does she have any realistic prospect of realizing this superpower in her lifetime?

Dr. KAKALIOS: Sadly, no. Of course, we can light objects by adding a great deal of energy to them. When something bursts into flames, you have to have a chemical fuel. You need oxygen and you need heat. And presumably if there were the chemical fuel there and if there's oxygen, what you need to do is provided a concentrated amount of heat.

So I would say that the one miracle exemption from the laws of nature, the one suspension of disbelief that you'd need is to be - the ability to somehow project large amounts of energy across distances and localize them in a certain region to make something burst into flame.

CONAN: OK, Erica, we expect you to get that soldering gun and get to work.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

ERICA: Thank you, Neal.

Dr. KAKALIOS: Thank you, Erica.

ERICA: Bye-bye.

CONAN: Let's go now to, this is Ethan, Ethan with us in San Antonio.

Ethan?

ETHAN (Caller): Yeah.

CONAN: You're on the air.

ETHAN: I am?

Dr. KAKALIOS: Hi, Ethan.

CONAN: Yes, you are.

Dr. KAKALIOS: Ethan, did you see "Iron Man"?

ETHAN: Yeah.

CONAN: Ethan, you've got to turn the radio off and just listen to your telephone. That's the secret here.

ETHAN: OK.

CONAN: Turn the radio off, Ethan.

ETHAN: Turn the radio off. OK.

CONAN: OK, now you can hear us without getting confused. So what superpower were you interested in asking about?

ETHAN: About the little ray thing.

CONAN: I'm sorry, Ethan, this is getting a little too confused.

ETHAN: Wait, what was the question again?

CONAN: Thanks, Ethan, we'll call you again. Let's see if we can go now to Kayla, Kayla with us in Scottsdale, Arizona.

KAYLA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

Dr. KAKALIOS: Hi, Kayla.

KAYLA: I actually haven't seen "Iron Man" yet. I think a group of college people are dragging me to it tonight, so I'm going to see that. But one power that I've always been interested in is the telepathic powers, moving things with your mind. I didn't know if you can have physics on physical things like invisibility or flying or things like that.

Dr. KAKALIOS: Well, actually, the good news there is that moving things with your mind is probably the thing that's coming first, that's in development. In "Iron Man," in the comic books, in particular, he controls his suit using a cybernetic helmet. And so he doesn't have to pull a trigger or do anything to shoot his repulsor rays in his palm or to activate his boot jets. He thinks of it and it happens.

KAYLA: Now, would that...?

Dr. KAKALIOS: Various labs across the United States and across the world are working on developing cybernetic helmets. At my own university, University of Minnesota, Professor Bin He, in the department of biomedical engineering, has developed a helmet that, when a test subject is watching a computer screen and trying to move the cursor to the left or to the right, up or down, it detects the brain patterns associated with those thoughts and moves the cursor.

KAYLA: Wow.

Dr. KAKALIOS: So he's able to actually move a cursor around on a computer screen without wires, without a mouse, but by thinking about where they want the cursor to go, the mouse arrow to go. And of course, Bin He is not developing this for computer games or to develop an "Iron Man" suit, but to treat people who are paralyzed, to develop the next generation of prosthetic devices, so this...

CONAN: We all know what's going to happen here. His girlfriend is going to be killed by a supervillain and he's going to get down to the basement and build himself a suit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KAKALIOS: Well, if my work on arc reactors ever reaches a breakthrough point, maybe we'll have something.

CONAN: Kayla...

KAYLA: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Here's an email we have from Allen. "Could your guest address the material of the suit. Gold titanium, based off the design, is it nearly as strong?"

Dr. KAKALIOS: That's a good question. I looked that up after seeing the movie. Titanium gold alloys do exist. They are pretty strong. They're used for bonding to porcelain. That is most useful usually in dentistry. And so these materials, I don't know if they are necessarily so much stronger than steel. I think there was a little bit of techno-babbble about how it solved a particular problem that he had with it, but they certainly do exist and they do have high strength.

CONAN: Our guest is James Kakalios, a professor at the school of physics and astronomy at the University of Minnesota, author of "The Physics of Superheroes," and of course, we're talking about "Iron Man."

But which superhero power have you always lusted after? Give us a call and we'll discuss the physical possibilities, 800-989-8255, and you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's see if we can go to Jack, Jack's with us in Denver, Colorado.

JACK (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JACK: You know, I have been a huge fan of the "X-Men" comics since I was really young and the one I always thought was really flabbergasting was the character of Colossus, who is actually in one of the movies I think, but he can turn his whole body to metal, and they specified in the comic that he even does it to his organs. It becomes organic steel stomach inside of him...

Dr. KAKALIOS: Yeah.

JACK: And I've always wondered how could that ever possibly happen?

Dr. KAKALIOS: Um...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KAKALIOS: Certainly not through physics. Through the imagination of Len Wein and Chris Claremont and the other writers of "The New X-Men" that introduced Colossus, those parts I have no idea what they would do. Those, the entire power is a suspicion of disbelief and a miracle exemption in the laws of nature...

JACK: Yeah, I guess you would say that...

Dr. KAKALIOS: Those parts...

JACK: All right, well, thank you.

Dr. KAKALIOS: How they do it is you enjoy the comic, that's how.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JACK: Thanks, well, I certainly do.

CONAN: Thanks, Jack.

Dr. KAKALIOS: Thank you, I do, too.

JACK: Bye.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Ben on the air and this is Ben, Ben with us from Tallahassee.

BEN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

BEN: I was wondering how the targeting system worked when he was over in the Middle East and he was targeting the terrorists and using - the terrorists were using civilians as body shields. How did he somehow manage to identify who were the bad guys and who were the good guys?

Dr. KAKALIOS: Excellent question. I'm afraid that that is Stark Industries proprietary knowledge...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KAKALIOS: And I am not allowed to reveal over the public airwaves.

BEN: Well, I was thinking, could it be something that maybe one's stance was aggressive or was holding guns, could that be possible?

Dr. KAKALIOS: Perhaps. Since the bad guys were holding women and children, maybe he was going off of body mass or body temperature.

CONAN: Or some biometric research of some sort. But the fact is, there're already guns, helicopter chin guns that are aimed by where the pilot points his eyes.

BEN: Wow.

Dr. KAKALIOS: Absolutely, absolutely, yes.

BEN: Well, thank you so much.

CONAN: OK, Ben. Here's an email from Helena in Rocking, I guess, California? "I've always wanted to have the powers of the X-Man Storm. It would definitely help me in my career being a meteorologist."

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: So, again when will science develop the power to control the weather?

Dr. KAKALIOS: Ah, that's a hard problem, because obviously, the atmosphere is a complex, dynamic system, that all the weather that we experience is driven by temperature differences, and the temperatures differences occur from differences in the absorbed sunlight, which is in turn governs - creates pressure differences, which move clouds around through wind, which change the absorbed sunlight.

So it's a very complicated system to be able to adjust. One advantage of studying Storm, I actually discuss her in my book, "The Physics of Superheroes," in the thermodynamic section, is to analyze it and ask, what is the physics miracle that you would need in order to have this power work? And the miracle is to be able to control temperature differences outside your body, and to be able to control them through the atmosphere.

And by doing that you get a little bit of insight into how conduction and convection work and how the weather actually arises. So while we can't control the weather, if you could control temperature difference - there again, getting back to the pyro-powers asked earlier. If you could control temperature differences outside your body, there's a great deal of things you could do, a lot of damage you could do.

CONAN: Good thing she's with the forces of good.

Dr. KAKALIOS: Yes.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Mary on the line, Mary with us from Louisville, Kentucky.

MARY (Caller): Hi. I have always had these wonderful dreams where I fly and it's silent. Is there any hope that I'll be able to do that in real life without jet propellers?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KAKALIOS: Well, certainly, you can glide, a controlled falling. The problem is that gravity is always present. And while it may the weakest of the four fundamental forces of nature, it's always attractive, and there's no way to screen it out or shield it, as near as we can tell. So unfortunately for us, our cars are not going to fly any time soon, certainly not silently.

If you are willing to have a fair amount of noise, then that's possible. Of course, considering what was present - what was possible 1,000 years ago and what we can do today, but still I don't think that we're going to be able to find any type of antigravity anytime soon.

CONAN: I have an answer for you, Mary, though. All you need to do is arrange to find a time machine, and one should be available I think next week, and then arrange to be born under a red sun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARY: Thank you very much.

CONAN: OK, Mary. Thanks very much for the call. And Dr. Kakalios, thank you very much for your time today.

Dr. KAKALIOS: Oh, a pleasure. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: James Kakalios is a professor at the school of physics and astronomy at the University of Minnesota and the author of "The Physics of Superheroes." He joined us from the studios at Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul.

Tomorrow, one father replaces the high school curriculum with movies. That's tomorrow on Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.