You, Too, Can Be Iron Man ... Almost

Tony Stark tests the technology for his Iron Man suit. (Image credit: Marvel/Paramount)

What's it take to be a superhero? For the most part, it's luck: born at the right place at the wrong time, such as Superman on the eve of Krypton's destruction; or exposed to ionizing radiation to somehow develop superhuman abilities instead of cancer, such as Spiderman and Hulk.

Then there are those overly ambitious multi-millionaires — Bruce Wayne, Oliver Queen and Tony Stark — who kick bad-guy butt as Batman, Green Arrow and Iron Man, respectively. [Latest News on Iron Man]

These non-mutated super-rich superheroes have no superhuman powers. They instead rely on their wits, skill and strength. This begs the question: Given a few million dollars in discretionary spending, could you be such a superhero? [7 Amazing Superhuman Feats]

The answer is yes, well, at least almost, according to E. Paul Zehr, a professor of kinesiology and neuroscience at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia.

Zehr takes on Iron Man in particular in his latest book, "Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). This book, replete with images of Iron Man action figures and real tales of his Iron Man training, is a sequel to Zehr's 2008 book "Becoming Batman."

Zehr's university-based research includes neuroplasticity, akin to neural rewiring, associated with exercise training and rehabilitation. This expertise, combined with Zehr's childlike curiosity and proficiency in martial arts, makes "Inventing Iron Man" — along with "Becoming Batman" before it — a fascinating exploration of human potential.

I am Iron Man

In short, without spoiling Zehr's latest book, it would take years to build the Iron Man suit, years to become accustomed to the suit, and years to train to fight and fly. Thus, you'd be middle age before you could begin your Iron Man career; and by that time, you'd be past your prime.

Yet what Zehr demonstrates so adroitly in this book is that Iron Man concepts are being invented every day.

For example, Iron Man's iron suit has evolved considerably since its debut in a 1963 Marvel comic book, from knight-like armor to something sleek and flexible. So, too, have real-life protective suits, from bulletproof vests to astronaut gear. The modern incarnation of Iron Man now has better control of his suit, as if it were skin. So, too, do amputees with their prosthetics; and now we are entering into an era of brain-machine interface, with mere thoughts controlling a computer cursor.

And as Iron Man can fly, so too can "Jet Man" Yves Rossy, the first person to achieve sustained flight with jet-powered wings on his back. The 52-year-old Rossy in fact is much like any superhero in training, racing against old age to perfect his "super" ability. [Superhero or Supervillain: Which Lurks Inside You?]

Crippled inside

But here comes the dose of reality. While Iron Man's suit is nearly indestructible, the man inside it is not. Tony Stark ultimately would be doomed by concussions and other injuries, Zehr explains.

The long-term effects of head injuries have garnered much public attention recently with the revelation of former National Football League players suffering from depression and cognitive disorders from years of head banging. Less discussed but perhaps more dangerous are blast waves from explosions that many soldiers experience; these are shocks that rip through the body at the speed of sound.

Iron Man is exposed to impacts and blast waves, and these get amplified through the iron, making matters worse. After a decade of such injury, it is unlikely that Stark could maintain his wits to operate the suit, let alone fight crime.

Next, brain-machine interface is only now an emerging field. Monkeys and humans must train for weeks or months to do something as simple as move a computer cursor with their thoughts. This will always be difficult, Zehr told LiveScience, because "you're trying to get your mind to do something it was never wired to do."

Iron Man's suit needs to be connected to Tony Stark's body as if it is an extension of him; he's not merely a knight in armor. This total control would take years of dedicated training to master; and the artificial circuitry to allow it would most certainly break down or malfunction, particularly in the presence of the aforementioned blast waves.

Then there's the consequence of risky training. If old age doesn't catch up with "Jet Man" Rossy, a crippling or fatal accident might. The same is true for anyone hoping to master superhero feats such as flying. [7 Ways the Mind and Body Change With Age]

Yet ultimately"Inventing Iron Man" is a book of hope. One only needs to visit the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., to see real-life iron men and women, injured in battle, re-inventing themselves and regaining strength and mobility. Many of the struggles that Iron Man Tony Stark would face, so carefully detailed in Zehr's book, these soldiers encounter every day.

This makes"Inventing Iron Man" a manual as much as it is a science-grounded examination of science fiction.

Christopher Wanjek is the author of the books "Bad Medicine" and "Food At Work." His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on LiveScience.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correct Oliver Queen's name, which included the wrong last name.

Christopher Wanjek
Live Science Contributor

Christopher Wanjek is a Live Science contributor and a health and science writer. He is the author of three science books: Spacefarers (2020), Food at Work (2005) and Bad Medicine (2003). His "Food at Work" book and project, concerning workers' health, safety and productivity, was commissioned by the U.N.'s International Labor Organization. For Live Science, Christopher covers public health, nutrition and biology, and he has written extensively for The Washington Post and Sky & Telescope among others, as well as for the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where he was a senior writer. Christopher holds a Master of Health degree from Harvard School of Public Health and a degree in journalism from Temple University.