Becoming Batman

19 November 2009

Writing a popular science book opened up a world of possibilities for Dr. E. Paul Zehr

A passion for popularizing science prompted Zehr, chair of MSFHR's Research Advisory Council, to write Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero. That, and what he saw as a major gap in the publishing world.

“There are user manuals for cars, computers and DVD players, but there’s no user manual for the body,” says the University of Victoria professor of kinesiology and neuroscience. “We all have one, but most of us don’t really know how it works.”

Becoming Batman fills the gap by examining the physical exploits of the only human (i.e. like you and me) superhero, who Zehr considers the most highly trained and skilled martial artist in the comic book universe.  The book explores the possibilities and limitations of flesh and blood, attempting to answer the question: “Could Batman be for real?”

It turns out that Becoming Batman, published in November 2008, is destined to be only the first in a series of popular science books by Zehr.  Reaction has been so positive to both the publication (it’s in the top ten of Amazon sales for Johns Hopkins University Press life sciences category) and Zehr's follow-up presentations, publisher Johns Hopkins has already signed him up for the next one – this time on Iron Man.

“From the comments and emails I get, it’s clear there is interest in the science of physical potential,” says the former MSFHR scholar (award term 2003-2008), whose research focuses on movement and recovery of walking after stroke. “I’ve spoken to lots of kids as well as teachers, and I think there’s a great opportunity to improve science education through topics related to popular culture.”

While Becoming Batman focused on the caped crusader’s corporeal aspects, the Iron Man book will explore the relationship between people and machines. “I’m looking at the extent to which human abilities can be maximized with technology,” says Zehr, who holds black belts in the martial arts of karate and Okinawan weapons.

“At one level it’s simply fun to think about what you could do if you wore an armoured robotic suit like Iron Man,” says Zehr. “But at another level this kind of thinking is potentially very beneficial to human health, for instance rehabilitation after stroke.”

Despite the focus on writing – the book series and, recently, freelance articles for children’s magazines — Zehr’s research remains a high priority. “The process of writing the book reaped huge rewards for my scientific work,” says Zehr. “To write for a general audience, you need to think ‘big picture,’ which opens up new ways of thinking about research questions.”

So, could Batman be for real? Not surprisingly, the answer is complicated. “There are many, many factors at play—the right genetic make-up, physical prowess, age, mental commitment, lots of money for equipment, and unlimited time, to mention just a few—and they would all need to combine perfectly,” says Zehr.