"Inventing Iron Man" book review

"Inventing Iron Man: The Possibility of a Human Machine"
By E. Paul Zehr

Neuroscientist and kinesiology professor E. Paul Zehr is a huge nerd. And it’s great.

Judging from the titles of his publications (Becoming Batman, Project Superhero), it’s obvious that the man has flipped through his share of comic books. He loves his superheroes and the entire fiction surrounding them. So much so, that he centered an entire academic discourse on the human body around Marvel’s Iron Man.

In Inventing Iron Man, Zehr explores the biological considerations facing Tony Stark, the man behind the Iron Machine. Zehr writes with the academic tone and the precision of a scientist speaking to his topic of expertise. The writing style is perfect for the scientist with an interest in the nervous system - he explains the foundational topics of neurophysiology in enough depth so the book is complete enough to function as a college seminar textbook.

Mind and Body

Zehr spends time drawing parallels between medieval knights and Tony Stark’s claustrophobia-inducing iron suit. In the opening chapter, he establishes his fandom of Marvel's Iron Man, discussing Tony’s comic book appearances dating back from his 1963 debut in Tales of Suspense, all the way up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe's on-screen portrayal by Robert Downey Jr. Not only does Zehr know his science - he knows his nerd culture!


Chapter 2 is a wonderful look into the biophysics of locomotion. He walks us through (pun intended) the foundational physiology of the muscles, and spends a good deal of time talking about Oscar Pistorius, the paralympic athlete with the leg replacements that allow him to run.  Following along his major theme of “the human machine,” the discussion of the physics of Pistorius in motion acts as a small first step towards building Iron Man. After all, before building the machine, we need to understand man.

Zehr talks about the man-machine interface, a major question of interest to both neuroscientists and engineers alike. How could it be possible for a person to communicate with a device - say, some sort of distance-vision device implanted in the eye? Movie Tony Stark can summon units of the Iron Man armor with his thoughts, smoothly bridging the gap between the mind and the machine. Could we eventually rewire and retrain our brains to send signals to a wearable device just as we can send signals to our muscles? A master of tennis would conceive of the tennis racket as an extension of his arm, whereby the brain would adapt to this “prosthetic” device. The brain of course wouldn’t perceive sensation in the racket, but would develop a feel for where the racket is in space at all times. This pseudoproprioception would likely be necessary for the tennis player to perform at the highest level. To Tony Stark, he would also need to have complete control over every aspect of the armor.

Even if this were possible physically, Zehr wonders if our limited attentional powers would allow for our brain to control a device as complex as the Iron Man armor. He brings up Marla De Jong’s study of cellphone usage while driving. Talking using a hands free device certainly frees up the hands from needing to hold the cellphone, but it doesn't free up our attention. Having a voice in the ear is distracting, preventing the brain from responding fully to incoming stimuli. Without attentional training, Tony’s Alexa-like companion inside the suit, would be a distraction preventing Tony from doing all the superhero-things he needs to do. These interesting points demonstrate that for Tony to be at peak Iron Man condition, he needs intense mental training as well.

The Jelly Inside the Armor

But the mind is just one part of the equation. What about the body? Zehr comments that a machine such as Iron Man controlled by the mind leaves the physical body weak and atrophied. Like a spaceman without gravity, Zehr proposes that Tony’s muscles would dwindle away rapidly as he no longer uses the muscles to support the skeletal structure. Although written to illustrate a point about muscle tone, I have to disagree with this premise as outlined in chapter five.

Regardless of whether Tony works out on screen, Robert Downey Jr certainly did. We have to assume that Tony pumps as much iron as he wears, based on Downey’s appearance in the films. The genius that he is, he is certainly aware that exercise is a necessity for his body to continue functioning normally outside of the iron suit.

iron man

Tony does not rely on the Iron Man armor for everyday functions. The occasional use of the armor actually serves as an advantage in combat. Consider if you wore heavy, 3 pound weights around your wrists while performing tasks for an hour. Your muscles will rapidly adapt to this condition by applying more muscle force to any action that your arms make. Immediately upon removing these weights, the body would remain in that overcompensation mode. You would move faster than before; actions would feel near-effortless. After walking around with the Earthly “burden” of gravity and our body's inherent mass, being inside the machine would give Tony an advantage in combat, as the machine helps improve his locomotion. This "jelly inside the armor" is not actually a detriment, but rather an advantage that gives him the power to defeat his foes in combat.

To the Future!

Fiction influences science, and science likewise influences fiction. But a creative writer of fiction can invent things that scientists and engineers could only dream of. It’s up to these engineers and scientists who consume that fiction to find the next step forward. Zehr reminds us this fact: the implantable device that kept the deadly shrapnel from destroying Tony’s heart in 1963 predated the first wearable heart device by a good two decades.

The ideas that Stan Lee developed in his creation of Iron Man may represent a next step in wearable technology. They hint at the idea of using robots to enhance physical therapy, or in our everyday lives. If Tony can bridge gap between man and machine gap, how can we incorporate those ideas to improve our lives?

The concluding chapter talks to the ACTUAL possibility of a person becoming Iron Man. This bit of speculation proved interesting to me, and I generally agree with Zehr conclusion: By the time you've received enough training to effectively use the suit, you're too old to be out saving the world.