Daily Archives: August 28, 2009

Chemistry and comic books


Science permeates into the collective mind of a society not only through school but also through the form of popular media such as the TV or in the case of this post comic books.

For a long time now, the group of  John Selegue and James Holler at the University of Kentucky have a website named as the comic book periodic table of chemical elements. In this clickable periodic table we can browse scans of the pages of different comic books in which the corresponding element is mentioned.

Clicking on each element will display some options for different comic books related to it but for every comic book only the page in which the corresponding element is referenced, is shown, therefore one is not able to read the entire comic book. Nevertheless, for the hardcore comic book fan there are, in many cases, insights to what the page displays putting the comic book, as well as the chemistry within it, in context.

Through the use of the physical properties of chemical elements, many comic book writers have created characters that base their identities in such properties. Also in some occasions, the chemical knowledge of a character helps to the story development. In both cases, chemical concepts are being -literally- illustrated and, ultimately imprinted in the collective mind.

In some cases it seem that there was a deliberate attempt to create a character with a storyline that revolved around the properties of the corresponding chemical element. Such is the case of all the “Metal Men” series in which a group of individuals have super powers related to the main characteristics of each’s corresponding metal. In other cases, such as in mainstream comic books like Batman or Superman, the inclusion of chemical knowledge is brought in by the supervillian who is usually a “mad scientist” trying to take over the world. This vision of scientists with power to enslave the human race probably arose from the atomic era as a consequence of rapid weapon development having the Manhattan project as an imediate antecedent.

The use of popular art forms has the benefit of reaching a larger audience and hence it also has the responsability of not distorting scientific facts into pseudo scientific ones.

Once again this post comes from my memories from the chemistry faculty back at UNAM and the classes of Dr. Raymundo Cea-Olivares who introduced it to us.

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