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Physicists find Spider-Man's webs could stop runaway train

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Spider-Man, seen here in a scene from the Columbia Pictures' Spider-Man 2, "does whatever a spider can." So, can a spider catch a runaway train? (AP Photo/Melissa Moseley)

Spider-Man fans may be used to suspending their disbelief, but physicists at the University of Leicester say the web-slinging wonder may actually deserve some real world credit.

In a paper titled 'Doing Whatever a Spider Can', three physics students from the university calculated that the strength of a real spider's webbing could actually bring a runaway train to a screeching halt.

Since the hero is supposed to use the proportional equivalent of a real spider's silk in his web-shooters, his heroics may have a scientific basis.

 The runaway train seen from above. (Columbia Pictures Corporation) "It is often quoted that spider-webs are stronger than steel, so we thought it would be interesting to see whether this held true for Spider-Man's scaled up version," said Alex Stone, who authored the paper along with James Forster and Mark Bryan.

"Considering the subject matter we were surprised to find out that the webbing was portrayed accurately."

The students published their paper in the latest volume of University of Leicester's Journal of Physics Special Topics, which allows students to get a feel for the publishing and peer review process but also to propose topics that are creative or even a bit off the wall.

The group drew inspiration from the train-stopping scene in Spider-Man 2 starring Tobey Maguire. In it, Spidey uses a series of webs to stop a train from blasting past the end of the line and falling to its doom.

 

The students determined that a real spider's web would, in a proportional scenario, be strong enough to stop four New York subway cars packed with passengers.

Taking the conditions into account, they calculated the time and force needed to slow the momentum of a train heading at full speed if a series of webs were attached to the vehicle.

For those interested in some of the sticky little details, the students found:

  • The force Spider-Man's webs would have exerted on the train would be 300,000 newtons
  • The stiffness of the web would be 3.12 gigapascals
  • The toughness of the web would be roughly 500 megajoules per cubic metre.
  • Webbing with these properties could feasibly stop a moving train

"To be a research physicist - in industry or academia - you need to show some imagination, to think outside the box, and this is certainly something that the module allows our students to practice," said course leader Dr. Mervyn Roy.

The paper is also fodder for the long running battle between fans of Batman and D.C. comics and those who prefer Spider-Man and Marvel comics.

In last year's issue of the Journal of Physics Special Topics, a different group of University of Leicester students found the famous Batman glide would actually kill the hero.

The dimensions of Bruce Wayne's cape in Christopher Nolan's 2005 film Batman Begins, they explained, wouldn't lead to a happy end for a mortal Batman.


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