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Authors look at scientific plausibility of comic books | (KRT) The loner scientist in his lab. Cosmic rays and genetic mutations. Wall-crawling, underwater breathing, flying like a bird.

From Aquaman to the X-Men, science is a staple of comic books.

But could any of that superhero stuff really happen?

BAM! ker-POW! whooosh! Darned if there aren't people who study this for a living.

At least two professors lecture regularly on the subject - one through the lens of physics, the other biology. And this month, two authors further explore the plausibility of pulp heroics in a new paperback, "The Science of Superheroes" (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR. ).

"Holy test tubes, Batman!" Robin might say. "We're going legit!"

Not so fast, Boy Wonder.

The consensus is that perhaps Batman and his high-tech crime-fighting gadgetry are scientifically feasible, but most of the exploits of his costumed counterparts wouldn't fly.

Case in point: flying. (Sorry, Superman.)

Still, Superheroes authors Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg are clearly fans of the genre, and they manage to explore some serious science without spoiling the fun.

At one point, they cite the gene research at the Institute for Reproductive Medicine and Science, at St. Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, N.J., as support for how the X-Men might exist.

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And in cases where the comic-book science falls short of the real McCoy, they even offer real-science alternatives.

Intense gamma radiation would kill Bruce Banner, for example, instead of turning him into a big green guy with an attitude problem.

But the Hulk (Banner's alter ego) is possible, perhaps, with a combination of steroid abuse and the implantation of a fluorescence gene from jellyfish, the authors write.

Gresh and Weinberg aren't scientists; they're fiction writers. Yet they earn kudos from scientists for getting it right, for the most part.

In fact, physics professor Jim Kakalios has used some similar examples in his University of Minnesota freshman seminar, Science in Comic Books.

Take Superman.

The early explanation for the Man of Steel's super strength was that he came from Krypton, a much bigger planet with a proportionately greater gravitational pull. And so, when he came to Earth, he was incredibly strong, much as an earthling is "stronger" on the moon.

Nice try, say Kakalios and the book's authors, but no planet could be big enough, or dense enough, for Superman to be as strong as he is.

Their calculations vary; they use different incarnations of Superman, who started out lifting cars and later graduated to ocean liners and planets.

In theory, Krypton would need to have a greater mass than the sun - meaning that the gravitational pressure at its center would cause nuclear fusion.

"You would basically have a very large star," said Kakalios, an avowed comics fan who is writing his own book on the physics of superheroes. (Batman would like the name of the publisher: Gotham Books.)

At DePauw University in Indiana, assistant professor Kevin Kinney looks at superheroes through the prism of biology.

He gives a guest lecture on the subject as part of a colleague's sociology class on comic books and American culture.

Also a superhero fan, Kinney nevertheless pokes holes in the science. Even assuming that Superman could lift a plane or Spider-man could scale walls and swing between skyscrapers, it would take an impossibly large amount of energy.

"Do these guys spend all of their time carbo-loading?" Kinney asked.

Another of Kinney's favorites, which is also used in the book, is the "square-cube" problem. It comes up in characters such as Giant Man, who become stronger when they get bigger.

If a living creature were to grow twice as tall (and wide), he would be four times as strong, because the cross-sectional area of his muscles would quadruple.

(Think of stretching a one-inch-wide square into a two-inch version. The length of a side has doubled, but the area has quadrupled.)

But here's the problem: A creature twice as high would weigh eight times as much.

(Now imagine a cube. If the length of a side is doubled from 1 inch to 2 inches, the volume increases from 1 cubic inch - 1 x 1 x 1 - to 8 cubic inches - 2 x 2 x 2.)

Eventually, it would be tough for an enlarged creature to hold up his head. That's why elephants need such thick legs, Kinney said.

Like Kakalios, Kinney said the Gresh-Weinberg book is pretty good on the science, though he took issue with the authors' prediction that genetic engineering could be used to create the X-Men.

Nor are those characters likely to arise from mutation (the explanation given in the comics), Kinney said.

Kinney also threw water on one theory that the book cites as possible support for Aquaman. According to something called the Aquatic Ape Theory, mankind is a branch of primates that once led an amphibious existence. That's why we have less body hair and more fat (a good underwater insulator) than apes, chimpanzees and gorillas - or so the theory goes.

"There is no evolutionary precedent for a mammal that's able to breathe water," Kinney said. "Which is a pity, because that's a superpower that I would love to have."

Yet improbable as superhero science may be, it appears to have staying power - both in universities and at the comic-book stores.

"I went to a comic-book convention with my son," Kakalios said earlier this month, somewhat sheepishly. "I was able to justify picking up some back issues for research purposes."

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© 2003, The Philadelphia Inquirer Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services