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OPINION | COLUMNIST: Prepping for next time

by RICHARD CHIN THE STAR TRIBUNE (MINNEAPOLIS) | April 2, 2021 at 3:18 a.m.

They finally got that giant cargo ship unstuck from the Suez Canal after nearly of week of trying and a fleet of tugboats.

But the next time the Suez gets jammed by a beached super-ship, why not do the global economy a favor and call a superhero to get the job done faster?

Our first thought was this is obviously a job for Superman, or someone nearly as strong like Thor, Wonder Woman or the Incredible Hulk.

Not so fast, says our friendly neighborhood physics professor.

In addition to being an expert in stuff like amorphous semiconductors, University of Minnesota professor James Kakalios has pondered the physical properties of the super-powerful in his book "The Physics of Superheroes."

Kakalios explained that a 1,300-foot-long ship is designed to have its weight supported by water under the length of its hull. So a brute force effort by a single superhero could be counter- productive.

"Tanker ships are not meant to be picked up," Kakalios said. "Even if supported under its center of mass, there would be enormous twisting forces, called torques, that would snap the vessel in half."

Kakalios suggested that a better superhero for the job would be DC Comics' Aquaman or Marvel Comics' Namor the Sub-Mariner.

Both of these aquatic superheroes can command sea creatures, meaning they could enlist an army of whales or fish pushing together to apply force equally over the entire side of the ship.

"Simultaneously, I'd have the Flash or Quicksilver use their super-speed to dig out a trench so that the side of the canal is not blocking the bow," Kakalios said.

Or Kitty Pryde of the X-Men could use her mutant powers to turn objects intangible so maritime traffic could pass through solid matter like the stuck ship, Kakalios said.

What if we get Spider-Man to weave a sort of giant cargo net around the ship and then let Superman haul on that?

"Spider silk is, pound for pound, five times stronger than steel," Kakalios said.

But better still would be if tech magnate Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) could figure out a way to create a giant net made out of braided carbon nanotubes, Kakalios said. Carbon nanotubes are an exotic new ultra-strong, low weight supermaterial that has a tensile strength many multiples greater than spider silk.

"Such a net has a chance of holding together enabling, Superman, Thor, Wonder Woman, Iron Man and Hulk with a jet pack to lift the vessel," Kakalios said.

Unfortunately we don't currently have the technology yet to make nanotubes on a large scale. But real-life scientists are working on it.

"When situations like this arise, it's always comforting to imagine that we could call on the Avengers or the Justice League," Kakalios said. "But in reality the superheroes that we rely on to save the day are each other."

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