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John Lamb, Published July 01 2012

Scientists untangle web of science fiction on Spider-Man

As will be explained in the new film, “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Peter Parker splits his time as the masked crime-fighter, a newspaper photographer and a budding scientist.

But how much of Spider-Man’s superpowers are backed up by science and how many are just a web of deception?

Scientists like Don “The Bug Man” Carey, research specialist at North Dakota State University’s entomology department, try to untangle science from fiction.

Besides being known as “The Bug Man” to area school children for his educational outreach programs, Carey is also a “Spider-Man” fan – and a fan of spiders.

“I torment grade schools and junior highs with my tarantulas and millipedes and scorpions and my gross, disgusting animals,” he says of his own alter-ego, “The Bug Man.” “People are terrified of tarantulas. They’re big hairy spiders that are basically puppy dogs. They’re harmless.”

Spider sense

Despite their menacing depiction, they are not only harmless, Carey says, but they also aren’t outfitted with a “spider sense,” like the one that tingles whenever Parker is in danger.

“They don’t have spider sense, but because of sensory hairs they can sense air movement and detect vibration. Spider sense, not quite,” Carey says.

Spider bite

In the original comic book story, Parker’s amazing arachnoid powers come from the bite of a radioactive spider.

In a History Channel show called “Spider-Man Tech,” scientists said it was unlikely one small spider bite could have much radioactive impact.

“Radioactive exposure is probably less than that of walking by a television set,” says Frank Frisch, professor of biological sciences at Chapman University.

In the 2002 big-screen adaptation of “Spider-Man,” Parker was bitten by a genetically engineered super-spider combining his DNA with that of the spider. The scientists on the History Channel thought this was more feasible.

Spider webs

In the original comic book, Parker develops a device to shoot webs from cartridges around his wrists. In the 2002 film, our hero shoots webbing directly from his wrists without the aid of mechanics, but in the new re-boot, he goes back to shooting from a device.

In the History Channel show, Michael Dennin, associate professor of physics at University of California, Irvine, says the technology of a web shooter would be similar to a can of silly string, but the amount of raw material needed to create the webs, swing through a city and subdue criminals would be much more than would fit around the wrist.

While Carey says the comic depictions of the web are accurate, one major difference is where they come from. Spiders produce webbing from spinnerets in the spider’s lower abdomen, not from an appendage.

Also, spiders don’t shoot webbing as much as squeeze the silk out, attach it to a surface and pull it along.

He says different spiders make different webs. Some are more elastic, some more sticky, depending on its intended use.

“The webbing material looks about right, and it’s incredibly strong for its size. Spider webs for their size are stronger than steel,” Carey says. “The shooting part doesn’t count, but the swinging and the hanging and stretching makes a lot of sense.”

Spider strength

Carey also says Spider-Man’s ability to scale walls with just a touch is true to form. Real spiders use the sticky hair and “hard, claw-like projectiles” on each of their eight legs to cling to and climb up smooth and sheer surfaces.

Spider-Man’s superhuman strength – able to lift 50 times his own body weight, according to some reports – is also in line with that of the actual arachnoid, Carey says.

“Some insects can lift 100 times their weight. I don’t think spiders can do that. But because of the way their muscles are attached, they are very strong,” he says. “A person on average can basically pull 80 percent of its weight. I’m sure a spider could do 10 times that.”

Amazing, indeed.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533