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Super science.

SUVEEN MATHAUDHU SAYS HE ALWAYS had an interest in science fiction and fantasy comic books--long before he became assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of California, Riverside's Bourns College of Engineering. Mathaudhu, who is also on the university's materials science and engineering faculty, has found that a comic turn of science fiction can help drive home a point of science fact.

He put together a workshop for the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in December 2013, titled "Materials in Extreme Environments." He represented various extreme conditions by conjuring up his childhood heroes. The embodiment of high-pressure, for instance, was the Hulk, and for temperature, the Human Torch.

About 10 years ago, Mathaudhu started collecting panels from comic books that depicted some aspect of science--or in many cases pseudo-science--that supports a hero. Fantasy science has "limited accuracy," Mathaudhu said. For example, the "adamantium" that coats Wolverine's skeleton and claws has properties that surpass any metal known.

Even so, Mathaudhu said, the fundamental idea of engineering super-strong metals and coatings is a goal of real science and engineering. And the connection of comics with reality can inspire curiosity, in groups of kids and sometimes among his colleagues.

He was in Pittsburgh for an engineering conference when he visited the ToonSeum, a museum dedicated to comic and cartoon arts where he met Joe Wos, who was the executive director.

The two discussed Mathaudhu's academic background and interest in comics, and then Wos asked him if he would be interested in curating an exhibit that would combine engineering and comics. The Comic-Tanium was born.

Comic-Tanium (tms.org/comictanium) combines the real world of materials science with the fictional worlds of comic book heroes. The exhibition includes panels from Mathaudhu's collection, as well as vintage comic books, movie props, and other artifacts with science fiction themes. Its lessons link the fictional with real-world engineering.

Visitors are told that Captain America's shield, for instance, is made of "vibranium," the "strongest material in the universe." Then they learn that Suveen Mathaudhu and a team at North Carolina State University "achieved the highest strength in a magnesium alloy"--a material that can replace heavier metals to reduce weight in vehicles.

Before the show opened at the ToonSeum it made its debut in San Diego at the Minerals, Metals, and Materials Society Annual Meeting and Exhibition in February 2014. The society, also known as TMS, was a co-sponsor of Comic-Tanium.

In April the exhibit traveled to the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. This is the largest festival for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in the world. It draws more than 350,000 children and adults.

The Comic-Tanium closed at the ToonSeum in January, but will continue in a new form. Mathaudhu is working with the TMS and the TMS Foundation to create a version of Comic-Tanium that will provide video and instruction modules for elementary and high school teachers.

He says the goal of the Comic-Tanium is to get kids interested in science and engineering. "They typically don't think of engineering that is something cool or interesting," he says. "But when you make the connection that SpiderMan and Hulk are scientists, kids start connecting to what scientists and engineers do."

Did comics influence Mathaudhu's career choice? He says no. His main influence was his father, an ME. But early on Mathaudhu saw superheroes as engineers.

"I suppose this viewpoint, in a way, made me feel that being an engineer was cool, even if society, pre-The Big Bang Theory sitcom, didn't necessarily see it that way."
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Title Annotation:INPUT OUTPUT
Author:Pero, James
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Apr 1, 2015
Words:593
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