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Tomorrow's Dark Knights

Warner Bros. Pictures
Batman (Christian Bale) gets the
cool gadgets in "The Dark Knight."

The Joker may be the scene-stealer in "The Dark Knight," but it's still Batman who has the cool gadgets. As the movie saga continues, some of the Caped Crusader's once-outlandish technologies are looking more and more realistic.

Batman has always been one of the more down-to-earth superheroes in the comic-book universe: He is supposed to have no special advantages, other than his brains, brawn and whatever can be bought or built with the aid of a billion-dollar bank account.

"We'd all like to think that if our parents were gunned down when we were young and left us a billion dollars, we'd go out and dress up like Dracula and fight crime," joked University of Minnesota physics professor James Kakalios, author of "The Physics of Superheroes."

So are the feats that Batman performs in the movies physically possible?

Most of the good news on that score is on the technological side of things, starting with the Batsuit.

"They did a great job justifying the suit," Kakalios told me. He cautioned that he's basing his opinion only on "Batman Begins," director Christopher Nolan's first foray into the saga, but the second movie sticks with the same premise.

Zapping the Batcape
Take the cape, for example. Kakalios said the movie made clear that the cape was supposedly capable of changing from loose-flowing to aerodynamically stiff with a mere jolt of electricity.

"That is definitely within the realm of technological plausibility," he said. "Although there is no specific material that can do that, there are materials that produce structural changes upon the application of an electric field. They're called piezoelectric materials."

Some shape-memory materials can change their properties when they're heated or cooled (or even exposed to light). That's the secret behind shrink wrap, or eyeglass frames that bend themselves back into shape, or even surgical sutures. "There are certain polymer fibers that have been developed for surgical applications where a surgeon can make a loose knot, and then upon warming, the knot tightens," Kakalios said.

Holy nanotubes, Batman!
In "The Dark Knight," Batman complains that he needs a better suit - and that's a concern for the real-life knights in the U.S. military as well. The Pentagon would love to have Wayne Enterprises' secret for lighter, more flexible body armor. Nanocomp Technologies, based in New Hampshire, is among several companies working on carbon-nanotube composites for military applications.

"We're really focused on trying to create layers of protection that would improve things for our troops," Peter Antoinette, Nanocomp's president and chief executive officer, told me. "It would take a number of years before you could order up a suit, and then a billionaire would have to pay seven figures for a suit that would work the way they do in the movies."

As an initial step, Nanocomp is working on nanotubes for next-generation wiring in satellites and aircraft. Carbon nanotubes are highly conductive and could replace copper wire in settings where reducing weight is crucial. "We're less than one-tenth the weight of copper, so if you can take 1,000 pounds off these satellites or aircraft, you'd be saving a huge amount of money," Antoinette said.

Commercialization of nanotube wiring could begin as early as next year, Antoinette said. He added that Nanocomp's materials are already undergoing military testing, and body-armor applications could start emerging in 2010 or so.

Kakalios agreed that nanotubes are a technology to watch: "Compared to steel cables, it's about 100 times stronger. Whether you can make this in large enough quantities, in long enough length scales ... that work is still in progress."

Not your father's Batmobile
The current incarnation of the Batmobile, also known as "the Tumbler," looks more like a low-slung armored vehicle than the high-finned flivver that Adam West drove back in the '60s. But that hews much more closely to the real-life vehicles being developed for the military, such as the Ultra-AP prototype.

In the three years since the Tumbler was unveiled in "Batman Begins," autonomous vehicles have taken giant leaps: Last year, a robo-SUV won a $2 million Pentagon prize after negotiating an urban obstacle course without any human intervention, and the technologies developed for that race are already finding their way into next-generation robo-transports such as the Humvee-size MULE, which can drive autonomously or under remote control.

In "The Dark Knight," Batman's ride clearly has some smarts of its own, and someday similar vehicles could be riding the roads in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Other technologies make their appearance in the new movie - ranging from a rescue system that was actually tested by the military (spoiler alert) to a cell-phone echolocation system that strains credulity. But in the end, the important thing is to build in just enough plausibility that you accept the truly implausible premise of a superhero movie.

"The more everything else can be realistic, the greater the chance that people will just accept it," Kakalios said.

Bad news for Batman
One of the less plausible aspects of a Batman movie would have to be that a mere mortal - even one who has gone through years of mental and physical training - could survive the punishment that he has to take in the course of a superhero career.

"Consider the number of times that Batman has been knocked unconscious in his over 60 years of fighting crime, and it is clear that he should be severely brain-damaged by now," Kakalios wrote in a Q&A about super-science.

The biomechanics of what Batman does would be a killer in real life: Kakalios recalled a scene from "Batman Begins" in which the budding superhero pulls someone else up from a potentially fatal fall with one hand. "For something like that, you'd need pectoral muscles that would get you an R rating," he said.

In a pinch, Batman has also been known to leap off tall buildings, cushioned only by the sproinnng of a taut cable. That wouldn't work in real life, for Batman or for other superheroes. Kakalios has repeatedly called attention to the problem with stopping falls in midair - so much so that he thinks comic-book writers are finally getting the message.

"It all depends on the time you have to stop him," Kakalios said. "The longer the time, the less force is needed to bring you to rest. This is why bungee cords are very stretchy. You go from a force that is lethal to one that is merely insane."

The biomechanical realities would be Batman's biggest challenge in real life - as detailed in Scientific American's Q&A with E. Paul Zehr, a kinesiologist and karate practioner who is the author of "Becoming Batman: The Possibility of a Superhero."

But Batman's gizmos just might get him through - and if the crime-fighting gig ever gets old, Bruce Wayne could always find work in a lab.

"As Homer Simpson pointed out, 'Batman's a scientist,'" Kakalios said. "I would have to say chemical engineering and materials science seems to be his strong point. It's not enough to have those wonderful toys; you have to know how to use them."