Some topics just catch the attention. They match some hard-wiring in our heads, pressing our buttons, firing neurons, so we go: “cool!”

That's certainly the case with the news that we can make Spider-Man suits using carbon nanotubes (CNTs). We’ll all be able to scale the sides of buildings and spin webs to catch our enemies. The paper in J. Phys.: Condens. Matter by Nicola M. Pugno of Politecnico di Torino, Italy is understandably being covered widely as we go to press. It examines whether we can develop gloves and boots that, like geckos and spiders, have strong adhesion to surfaces, can be easily released using normal muscle movement, and won’t get dirty and lose that stickiness. The answer, Pugno calculates, is hierarchical structures of CNTs.

Is it just the idea of being like Spider-Man that sparks our interest in this story? Well yes, but I think it's more than that. After all, what's behind gecko adhesion has been in the news since it was found to be largely the result of van der Waals adhesion, and groups then sought to come up with similar artificial materials. Pugno points out to me that his story involves both ‘nano’ and ‘bio’ – but those words only speak to researchers in our own area.

The concept of looking to nature and copying its best tricks is one reason why the prospect of walking up walls gets us listening. We’ve always looked at the world around us, wanting to copy its beauty and abilities – the way birds fly, for instance. We feel that everything around us is perfectly adapted to its way of life, where our feeble attempts at engineering are wasteful and inefficient.

The main reason that stories like this grab our attention is that they resonate with something that appeals, a bit of fantasy that's still recognizable, perhaps offering a tantalizing possibility that's unexpected. Those elements are not hard to spot in this case. I’ve been part of a team doing a ‘Science of the Superheroes’ show at science festivals in the UK, and we’re hardly the first.

Using such images and ideas is a great way to get people hooked into the science. But it's not always possible to find something that resonates – everyone has a built-in sense of the contrived. Energy is one area in which I think it's hard to come up with a suitable angle, and I would welcome suggestions. A UK TV channel is broadcasting a competition in which contestants have to live on a landfill site, recycling whatever they can find to get by for three weeks. Getting more of us thinking about the stuff we throw away is worthwhile, however, I suspect it may be hard to get us going “cool!”

Editor's note: John A. Wert, 56, of Risø National Laboratory, Denmark, and first author of ‘Revealing deformation microstructures’ in the last issue of Materials Today [(2007) 10 (9), 24], died on July 23 while hiking in Norway. Our thoughts are with his family, friends, and colleagues at this sad time.


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DOI: 10.1016/S1369-7021(07)70220-1