Phone Booth Friday: Superhero Chemistry

Today’s Phone Booth Friday post is all about science, or more specifically elements and chemistry. Now, I’ve noticed that there’s been a lot of blowback recently in the social media commentariat about how it’s not cool to say that you love science, when you’re not actually a scientist. If you’re just someone who enjoys reading about things like space exploration or physics in popular publications, then geeking out over some discovery you find fascinating is apparently bad form. So before I get into the meat of today’s post, I will simply say as an initial matter that while it’s true watching a NOVA episode on the Valley of the Kings does not make you an Egyptologist, it’s only fair to point out that being able to cite the stats of a particular college football player because you happen to watch him play on television every week doesn’t even make you so much as a benchwarmer for Notre Dame, either.

Alright? Then let’s move on, those of you who are still with me.

Earlier this week I was pleased to come across this truly, deeply nerdy post on the Periodic Table of Superhero Elements. In it, the authors comb through the DC, Marvel, and other comic universes to list those fictional substances which have caused an impact on the lives of many of the characters we know, both for good and for bad. In doing so, they may also be revealing why it is that the superhero genre seems to be able to infinitely expand as it does, thanks to our acceptance of the ever-changing aspects of science and technology.

Most of the superheroes we’re familiar with have their origins either on another planet, as a result of interaction with someone from another planet, or they have undergone some kind of mutation as a result of an experiment or accident. Even the ones who are just earthlings with extraordinary talents and resources, like Batman or Ironman, hone and improve their abilities through the study of science and technology. It’s interesting then, in reviewing this superhero periodic table, to note how often something as basic as a particular element – albeit a fictional one – can have a significant impact on the lives of these larger-than-life characters.

Kryptonite, for obvious reasons my least favorite element, is very well-known, even among those who aren’t really fans of the superhero genre. Although it does not exist in real life, when someone refers to something as “my kryptonite”, we all understand immediately that they are identifying a particular weakness that they have. Oddly enough, in real life “krypton” itself is one of the noble gases, rather than a long-gone planet, and is used in lighting and photography.

Sometimes these fictional elements don’t have a physical effect on our hero or heroine directly, but rather aid them in some way. Vibranium, for example, is the key component of Captain America’s iconic shield, while Amazonium is forged to make Wonder Woman’s bullet-deflecting bracelets. The properties of these substances are determined by the writers of the stories, of course, and some of these can a bit far-fetched indeed.

Nevertheless, we always suspend our disbelief regarding fictional elements such as these, and don’t seem to give much thought to the fact that many of the things we see in a superhero film, for example, are not actually possible on a scientific level – at least, not yet. I suspect that part of the reason why we’re willing to accept these things is because of science fact, even though in the superhero world we are looking at science fiction. In real life, we have come to accept that science leads to new discoveries of unknown substances and elements all the time, with possible new chemical properties and practical applications, as well as risks and dangers.

Consider the actual periodic table of elements and chemistry itself, which you probably had to memorize in high school. That grid layout of numbered and stacked boxes, as most of us would recognize it, first appeared nearly a century ago now, but it has grown considerably in size since that time as new elements have been discovered. The most recent of these, fierovium, livermorium, and ununseptium, have only been named and accepted by the scientific community within the last five years.

Who knows what the table may look like a century from now, as science advances?  What elements will there be, and how may we be able to use them in things like chemical applications?  Things like this make science perpetually exciting, frankly, even when you’re not a Nobel Prize nominee, but just someone who has a big imagination.  And it shows that the hero can just as easily have a great mind, as be able to toss the bad guys about like paper bags.

So for those of you who enjoy the world of superheroes, whether you are a full-blown collector and cosplayer, or whether you just enjoy catching the odd film or TV show when it’s on, go right ahead and enjoy learning about science. No, taking an interest in science does not make you a nuclear chemist. Yet by appreciating the study of science, and indeed encouraging the study of it among the young people of your acquaintance, you not only open a wider world of knowledge and lifetime learning for yourself, you also can help show others that studying science is not a chore, but actually rather heroic – in an elemental sort of way.

kryptonite

Archaeology As Sideshow: Digging Up the Dead

I wanted to be a lot of things when I was little: superhero, paleontologist, CHiPs officer, fireman, Jedi, wizard, pope, etc.  One of my more lasting pipe dreams however, was to become an archaeologist, and that early interest in archeology has stayed with me lo these many years later.  Yet there’s always been an aspect of this science which I find disturbing, as exemplified by some recent work in the UK, and that is the practice of digging up the dead in order to put them on some sort of display

Recent reports are that the group of archaeologists and researchers who managed to rediscover the tomb of England’s infamous King Richard III are at it again.  This time their quarry is King Harold II, last of the Saxon kings of England, who was allegedly killed during the Norman Conquest at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  In the famous Bayeux Tapestry, Harold is shown rather graphically getting an arrow through the eye into the brain, proving that our medieval ancestors liked violent comic books as much as we do.

The exact location of Harold’s grave is presently unknown, but archeologists have an idea of where they should look.  The hope is to find it using the same ground-scanning technology employed to locate Richard’s grave, on the grounds of a much-rebuilt former Benedictine abbey from Harold’s time.  If he can be found, they may be able to determine whether Harold was indeed felled in battle, or whether – as another source maintains – he lived to a ripe old age as a religious hermit, after being deposed by William the Conqueror.  Thus, a long-standing historical mystery would be solved.

Part of this same historical curiosity was what drove these researchers to look for the remains of Richard, of course.  Did the last Plantagenet king in fact have a hunched back? Was he really killed in battle?  After locating his tomb and digging him up, it turned out that yes, Richard had a spinal deformation, and yes, he was hacked to death in battle, and pretty savagely, too. These kinds of details make history, and indeed archeology, an exciting area of study.

However the problem is that Harold, like Richard, was a Catholic. As a Catholic, he had the right to be buried in the way he and any Catholic would be buried, in consecrated, Catholic ground.  I suspect that Harold, if he’s found, is going to be dug up and put on display in a building expropriated from the Catholic Church, for indeed that is what is happening to the remains of Richard.

To be fair, the rediscovery of Richard’s resting place led to his reburial in a church, rather than leaving him in a parking lot, and that’s all very well as far as it goes.  Yet there is a certain element of the bizarre in the notion that either of these monarchs should be disinterred and reburied in buildings stolen from their faith by people who would have persecuted or executed these men for being Catholics but a few centuries ago.  Even today, in the 21st century, Harold and Richard would still be banned from succeeding to the English throne, based exclusively on their Catholicism.

Given that Harold, at least, is expected to lie somewhere in the graveyard of the abbey where he was originally buried, it seems far more preferable to leave him there, even if his tomb is located and explored.  Don’t turn him into some sort of sideshow attraction, just leave him where he is when all is said and done.  It still won’t be a Catholic site, but at least it would avoid the painful historical anachronism of what would surely follow, in a formal re-interment somewhere else.  The dead deserve far more respect than that, whether they are a significant archaeological find or not.

King Harold II getting it in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (c. 1070) Bayeux Tapestry Museum, Bayeux, France

King Harold II getting it in the eye at the Battle of Hastings (c. 1070)
Bayeux Tapestry Museum, Bayeux, France

 

Totus Tuus: Marian Suffering and Pope St. John Paul II

Today for the first time in the liturgical calendar, the Church celebrates the feast of Pope St. John Paul II.  For many of us as we were growing up, JPII – as we affectionately call him – was the only pope we had ever known, thanks to his long pontificate from 1978 until 2005.  There is so much that one could reflect on about the man today, but I want to focus on just one aspect of his life, thanks to a work of art I stumbled upon yesterday.

The image of JPII reproduced below is part of a huge canvas about 40 feet long and 30 feet wide.  It depicts the Coronation of the Virgin Mary following her arrival in Heaven, and was painted by contemporary Spanish artist Raúl Berzosa Fernández (born 1979).  The work covers the ceiling of the Oratory of Santa Maria Reina (Mary, Queen of Heaven) of the Hermandad de las Penas (Brotherhood of the Sorrows) in the Andalusian city of Málaga.  The painting took 6 years to completeand was just finished and dedicated a month ago.

The Brotherhood is one of the religious associations which participate in the famous Holy Week processions in Spain.  Each of these groups typically has their own church or chapel where they preserve the elaborate floats and statues used in these processions, and where members gather throughout the year for prayer, services, and to encourage the local community in their faith.  This particular group cares for two historic images used during Holy Week: one a highly-detailed sculpture of Christ on the Cross, and the other of the sorrowful Virgin Mary, weeping over the pains being suffered by her Divine Son.

Not only is Sr. Berzosa Fernández’ work magnificent, it demonstrates that the study of classical art is not yet dead, thank goodness.  Yet it also gives us an image of the late Pontiff in a wider theological context, not simply as a portrait.  As one of the figures in a piece celebrating the Blessed Mother, in the chapel of a group dedicated to meditating on the suffering which she and Her Son endured, the presence of St. John Paul II in this painting is more than simply a pious inclusion. It exemplifies the Pope’s deep understanding as a result of his own, personal suffering of how Mary’s example of suffering along with Her Son can lead us to better follow Him.

St. John Paul II’s devotion to Our Lady, particularly at her shrine of Czestochowa in Poland, and at Fátima in Portugal following the attempt on his life, is well known, of course.  His motto on his Papal coat of arms was the same which he had as Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, “Totus Tuus” – “All Yours” – referring to the opening consecration to the Virgin Mary of St. Louis de Montfort. The coat of arms also featured an initial “M” beneath the cross, recalling the presence of the Blessed Virgin beneath the cross at the Crucifixion, witnessing the suffering of her Son and sharing in His sorrows.  And sorrow was something JPII understood all too well, under the Nazis, later under the Communists, and still later in surviving an assassination attempt and suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s disease.

Yet for JPII, while sorrow and suffering was a reality not to be shied away from, he recognized that these things were ways to bring us closer to Christ, as indeed the Mother of Christ herself understood by remaining close to her Son.  In his 1987 encyclical “Redemptoris Mater”, a complex theological document which has been studied and commented on by many far more educated than I, St. John Paul II reflected on the relationship of Mary to Christ and His Church.  I won’t even attempt to unpack it in a blog post.  Instead, I wanted to highlight one of my favorite passages in the text, which is relevant for our consideration here.

Toward the end of the encyclical, when the late pope points out Mary’s role as an example and as an intercessor in helping us to struggle against evil and do good, to carry on even though suffering, and to pick ourselves up and rise after we have fallen, he reflects on the times in which we live, when we can be so easily deluded into thinking everything is fine and dandy in the world:

Mankind has made wonderful discoveries and achieved extraordinary results in the fields of science and technology. It has made great advances along the path of progress and civilization, and in recent times one could say that it has succeeded in speeding up the pace of history. But the fundamental transformation, the one which can be called “original,” constantly accompanies man’s journey, and through all the events of history accompanies each and every individual. It is the transformation from “falling” to “rising,” from death to life. It is also a constant challenge to people’s consciences, a challenge to man’s whole historical awareness: the challenge to follow the path of “not falling” in ways that are ever old and ever new, and of “rising again” if a fall has occurred.

Just as the painting which brought about today’s post was something that took many years to complete, so too, our own lives are a constant work in progress, not something which is ever going to be perfected in this life.  Christ taught us this, His Mother understood it, and St. John Paul II certainly tried to live it and pass that reminder along to us.  As we remember him today, let us also remember that picking up our cross and soldiering on, however difficult it may be, is what all Christians are called to do.

Detail of "The Coronation of the Virgin" by Raúl Berzosa Fernández (2008-2014) Oratory of Santa Maria Reina, Malaga

Detail of “The Coronation of the Virgin” by Raúl Berzosa Fernández (2008-2014)
Oratory of Santa Maria Reina, Málaga