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From Super Soldiers to the Hulk, JHU Faculty Member Tackles Science Fantasy in “The Avengers”

If the movie “The Avengers” left you wondering whether you might one day find yourself face-to-face with the Hulk, or whether you would someday be selected by the U.S. government to transform into a “super soldier,” you can breathe easy. Dr. Kristina Obom, Program Director for the Master of Science in Bioinformatics and for the Master of Science in Biotechnology programs at JHU, assures us the “science” in this movie is more science fiction than science fact.

For those not familiar with the Incredible Hulk – who turns into an uncontrollable green-skinned monster when angered or provoked – the mythology behind his transformation is that it’s the result of a gamma radiation experiment gone awry. But the chances of gamma radiation resulting in such a mutation is far-fetched.

While low-dose radiation is used to help kill cancer cells, high-dose radiation is lethal for humans, Obom explained.

Mutations are more likely in animals and plants that fall victim to significant radiation. For example, in the area surrounding Chernobyl, there’s a pine forest that turned from green to red. The birds in the area have a higher rate of albinism and the catfish are growing to unusual sizes.  (Side note from author:  Hmmm… Hulk-like sizes?)

However, Obom said that cancer is the most common side effect for humans exposed to those same levels of radiation.

So it looks like we don’t have to worry about coming face-to-face with an oversized green creature anytime soon. (Side note from author: My sister is breathing a huge sigh of relief right now. Let’s just say as a child she wasn’t the Hulk’s biggest fan.)

So what about the other “mutant” from “The Avengers”?

Captain America doesn’t have any Hulk-like super powers. He’s just been enhanced to the peak of human perfection thanks to an experimental serum and “Vita-Ray” treatment. Subtract the Vita-Ray treatment and are we just looking at a man on steroids?

“The closest we see to Captain America is athletes who use steroids or the use of human growth hormone for people with a short stature,” Obom said.

Of course, for real athletes, their bodies will never automatically replenish the “super-soldier serum” like Captain America’s does. Instead, they have to keep using the dangerous drugs to maintain the effects.

So if the “science” behind these popular figures is so faulty, why are they so popular?

“Fantasy movies like this tell us about what we’re afraid of and what we want to be,” Obom explained. “People hope science will solve all of our problems. We’re all looking for a cure and how to make things better. These movies speak to that.”

Next month’s topic: The science behind last year’s superstar showcase, “Contagion”

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