BOOK REVIEW: Inventing Iron Man by E. Paul Zehr

Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human MachineInventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine by E. Paul Zehr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

As the title suggests, this book examines whether Iron Man could exist in the real world. As with Michio Kaku’s book Physics of the Impossible, answering the question involves defining the various meanings of “impossible.”

One way to parse the question is, “Is Iron Man possible today given the existing state of technology?” In and of itself, this question is of limited interest because the answer is, “no.” There’s certainly a demand, and so if Iron Man could exist given current technology, he probably would. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting to learn about what technologies are holding us back and where the cutting edge of relevant technologies lies—both of which are addressed by the book.

Still, a more interesting inquiry is, “Will Iron Man ever be reality given the physical laws that we know to govern the universe?” While more intriguing, it’s also a harder question to definitively answer. It’s impossible to foresee all the technological developments that might come along to answer the seemingly insurmountable challenges (e.g. Tony Stark’s inevitable Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).) The book deals with the critical question of what challenges would have to be overcome for Iron Man to be reality.

As Zehr suggests, the appeal of Iron Man is that he’s considered to be among superheroes for the common man. Like Batman, the sufficiently bright and diligent nerd may fantasize that, “That could be me.” You or I can’t be Superman or Wolverine, but given enough money, smarts, and training we could be Batman, or—even better—pilot the Iron Man suit. Put in this light, the book may seem like just another frivolous attempt to capitalize on the popularity of superheroes to sell books. However, there’s actually a great deal of food for thought packed in the book. Like others, I read the book because its title is Inventing Iron Man and not Neuro-motor control of a self-propelled armor system or some other suitably scholarly title.

Dr. Zehr has the bona fides to delve into this topic. He is a Professor who investigates questions of how the nervous system controls movement. That subject may not constitute the sum total of critical concerns, but it’s one of the most important challenges. For Iron Man to move the way he does in the movies and comic books, Tony Stark’s impulses to move have to be transmitted seamlessly to the servo-motors that move the suit. From dodging Col. Rhodes’ (i.e. War Machine’s) punches to ducking RPGs, Stark can’t be quick enough if he has to manually steer the device. Then, of course, there’s the issue of feedback. Any neophyte meditator who’s had his or her foot fall sound asleep will know how difficult it is to walk surefootedly when one can’t feel anything through one’s foot.

[Iron Man 3 spoiler commentary in this paragraph.] One of the most damning challenges for making Iron Man a reality is the high probability of severe concussions. Let’s say you make the suit out of a material that is virtually indestructible? This may be possible. However, the pilot’s mushy brain is still sloshing around inside that impenetrable armor. One can remotely pilot the suit in order to negate this (as has been done in the comic books and the third movie), but—at that point—is it still Iron Man? I know from a writer’s perspective it’s a lot harder to maintain tension if there’s nothing human on the line. In the third movie about 30 autonomously piloted suits get wiped out and the viewer doesn’t care—the only source of tension is that Tony Stark is without armor half the time.

Some of the most interesting discussions are about where the current state of the art lies with respect to: a.) direct mind control over mechanical systems; b.) a “flying suit”; and c.) robotic movement enhancers. Zehr conducts interviews with those engineers and technologists involved in such technologies, and finds out where we are presently. Letter “a” above seems to be the least developed of the three technologies, but they are all active lines of research.

I enjoyed this book and found it interesting. I think anyone who is interested in the state of technology and its limits will find it a nice pop-sci introduction to the subject. The use of superheroes as a pedagogic device may be overdone, but it continues to work because we are fascinated by the edge of possibility, and that’s what superheroes represent.

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