My Decade With the Dark Knight

Body, brain, Bruce and me—10 years after "Becoming Batman."

Posted Sep 14, 2018

My tipping point arrived on a Friday afternoon in the fall of 2006. I was in my university office working on a grant. I glanced out the window which had a nice view of the campus. A bald eagle circled overhead. Pretty standard west coast scene that is routine yet remains ever inspiring. And it inspired me in a different way that day.

I had searched GoogleScholar for publication information on one of my research papers. Typically this sort of effort would mean just grabbing the volume or page numbers I was looking for, but on that day I looked over my citation stats. In 2006 my most “popular” paper had about 150 citations. In my area of science anything over 100 is considered a very high impact paper. Maybe on a different day that’s how I would have thought about that number.

But that isn’t what I thought on this particular Friday afternoon. Instead, I asked myself, “What if that number really means that only 150 people read my paper?” Then, "Is that acceptable as a measure of my scientific and societal impact?"

Of course, the definition of what counts as an acceptable impact on society is pretty subjective, and my subjective answer was that I wasn’t contributing as much to society through just my research activities themselves. A truer and more directly measurable impact—I thought—would be to more directly approach the general public. That is when I decided to make the dissemination of science to the general public a major part of my activities as a scholar and academic. My journey with Batman and Superfriends began.

Finding common ground with those I am trying to communicate with is critical. I choose to popularize science by linking the scientific to images, personalities, and icons already well known in popular culture. Science fiction and superhero movies and television shows are now extremely popular, but back in 2006 they were much less so. The fantastic "Batman Begins” signaled the beginning of a whole new approach to superhero movies, but comic books were not yet anywhere near as mainstream as they are today.

I thought that we would see more of this, and guessed that comic book superheroes could represent excellent opportunities for exploring scientific concepts in a mental headspace that was comfortable and familiar for many more than those who would normally read scientific papers. This resulted in my 2008 book “Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero,” which was followed eventually by “Inventing Iron Man” in 2011, “Project Superhero” in 2014, and “Chasing Captain America” in 2018.

All my books use pop-culture icons of superheroes Batman, Iron Man, Batgirl and Captain America as metaphors for communicating science to the general public. These icons are pitched as real humans who used training (Batman & Batgirl), technology (Iron Man), and bioengineering (Captain America) to achieve extreme limits of superhuman performance abilities.

In all the books, presentations, and talks I’ve done around science and superheroes I’ve explored a vast spectrum of science concepts including: the hierarchical organization of the nervous system; supraspinal and spinal reflex control of movement; neural adaptations to skill training and motor learning; the neuropsychology of martial arts training and combat; pathophysiology of concussion; neural plasticity associated with injury and training; cortical somatosensory and motor maps and phantom limbs; the concept of neuroprosthetics including brain-machine interface; evolutionary biology; stem cell therapy; gene editing; and the ethics of human enhancement. These books attempt to bring scientific understanding to the broader public by using well-understood icons and then connecting science to those icons. Communications guru Marshall Mcluhan said that “The medium is the message,” to highlight the importance of both knowledge and how it is presented.

Reflecting now, 10 years after I entered what was then uncharted territory for me, I have no regrets. My intention was to connect with and impact many more folks than my prior work allowed. While I don’t count “citations” of my books as metrics of success, I have received countless emails and letters from people who have read my books and been impacted by the ideas within. A common theme emerges that relates to the improvement in knowledge of how their bodies work and the psychology of striving for the best in whatever activity a person engages in.

Particularly relevant to my journey with Batman and one that reinforces my resolve to keep on with this type of work is a message that read in part:

 “...One day, on a whim I Googled the terms 'Batman and Neuroscience,' and lo and behold I was led straight to your book 'Becoming Batman.' I read up about you and soon found in you what I had been looking for since my teen years, a mentor, something to aspire towards, someone to look up to. I figured if you can find a way to combine your hobbies and your professional academic interests then why couldn't I? I was happy again for the first time in a long time and I have you to thank for it…”

Messages like this clearly don’t qualify as the kind of indicator of impact that will get me another grant, or a raise, or more funding. Yet it is the kind of impact that makes me feel much better about my own contribution to society and how the full impact of my own career may one day be weighed up and assessed.

That’s the kind of impact I can be content with. Back in 2008 I took a chance and explored the unknown when I decided to write about Batman and human potential. Since that time, just like Batman, I keep up my own mission day by day trying to do the best I can.

And that paper? It now has over 500 citations. But for me, the most important thing I can continue to communicate is this: each of us has a bit of Batman inside. We have to find that bit and put it to good use. That's how we can all make the world better, step by step. Such efforts require risks, but they can be amazingly rewarding.

© E. Paul Zehr (2018)