Lee Faulk taught me that superconductivity looks best in yellow, works best in a comic strip
I am utterly fascinated with the concept of superconductivity. For one, it is among those concepts on the cusp of widespread practical application. Save for a few niggling constraints, which science is confident of overcoming quite soon, a host of magical technology, from levitating vehicles to incredibly powerful batteries could come true, all moved by superconductors.
Tradition, and a touch of ego dictate that I now give you a small science lesson about superconductors. However, since I do not naturally possess a scientific bent of mind, I will happily disregard most of the rules of science writing, and simply tell you everything I think is cool about superconductors, ending with why I grew interested in superconductivity itself in the first place. Also, I'm not going to give you any wikipedia links. Go Google it yourself.
Why superconductors are cool
They’ve got the word ‘super’ in them: Call me a schoolboy, correct me if I’m wrong, rap me on the knuckles for pointing out the obvious, but any phenomenon with the word ‘super’ in it implies that something way out of the ordinary is going on. ‘Super’ indicates that extraordinary strength, speed, odour, whatever, is a distinct possibility. In this case, superconductivity indicates ‘zero’ electrical resistance. Clever, isn’t it? The super=zero bit? Right. Basically means when electricity passes through this material, there is no loss in transit. If the electricity weighed one kilo at the starting point, it will weigh the same at the destination. (Told you I’d bend science writing rules)
They do quantum stuff you can see: Now, quantum physics is typically stuff you don’t understand and invariably something you can never see with your limited vision. ‘Quantum’ is physics tripping on drugs. All the weird stuff that can’t be explained by the rules of the physical world. All that thing with the Higgs’ Boson and ‘God’ particle was terribly exciting to read about, but there’s really nothing to see. A bunch of coloured dots on a big screen, and suddenly, there’s hurrahs all around. Not so with superconductors. They do this thing called the quantum lock, which is really, really, cool to see. I’ll show you a video later on.
They’re tangible sci-fi: And that’s really the thing, isn’t it? You see a guy removing a disc from a little container of liquid nitrogen, suspending inches over a magnetic rails. He then turns the whole thing upside down and the disc is suspended still, in mid-air. He then gently pushes the disc and zooms round the frame, trailing white nitrogen mist behind it. Then you Google it and find out superconductivity would be perfect for about two dozen of your futuristic fantasies.
They are literally cool: Ok, I’m repeating myself a bit, but this is Terminator 2: Judgment Day kind of stuff. You remember when liquid nitrogen freezes the bum off T-1000 and then a single bullet shatters him? Well, actual superconductivity happens only at such temperatures. There’s this equation called the London Equation (insert important clearing of throat), which describes how, when the temperature of the material drops below a critical level, magnetic fields within it are expelled! The exclamation mark is because I actually get it!
Now, why on earth are we talking about superconductors, and why am I fascinated by them? I will tell you why. Mandrake the Magician.
Created by Lee Faulk, the man who also created ‘Phantom’, Mandrake is a comic terribly typical of a particular era. It reeks of the U.S. in the early part of the 20th century. The characters are cheerfully misogynistic and racist. The protagonist’s powers are poorly defined and often unlimited. The ladies Narda and Karma, love interests of Mandrake and his assistant Lothar, appear in bikinis more often than in other comics of that time. Not right up there when it comes to imaginative contributions to pop culture, but it still managed to inspire a love for science in a philistine like myself.
In one of the episodes, Mandrake’s city is tormented by a mysterious burglar on a bicycle. He breaks into high-security vaults with seemingly no problems and steals diamonds. Oh, but that’s not all. Minutes before he disappears, as the horrified law enforcement watches, he – wait for it – COOKS the diamonds on a frying pan, and shatters them to dust with a hammer.
The burglar, it is revealed, is a conman from the future, on the run from the law. And to time travel, he needs diamond dust. The burglar also goes about conning innocent present-day folk for millions of dollars, by giving away extraordinary gadgets, chief among them a large, thin, yellow disc.
This is the meat of the story, so pay attention. Now, the yellow disc is no ordinary thing, the burglar tells an understandably sceptical prospective customer – a businessman. A demonstration is given. First, he flings the disc away and it lies suspended in mid-air. Amazing! Then, he stands on the disc himself. It supports his weight with hardly a change in position. Astounding! And in the next frame, there’s a huge barbell on the disc, which ‘1 ton’ engraved on it. There are exclamation marks all over the page. “You can use this as an elevator, as transport, as anything you wish, really,” the burglar tells the businessman. The item is sold and paid for in diamonds.
The rest of the story is pretty routine. Future cop comes, catches burglar by the scruff of his neck, whisks him away and erases the memory of Mandrake and gang. Incidentally, Mandrake’s hypnotic skills don’t work on men of the future. In the entire episode, science was the hero and Mandrake was an ineffectual side-kick.
I fell in love with that yellow disc. The sheer simplicity of it went against every contemporary example of futuristic gadgets. Hover-cars and jet-packs were cool, but even if they were products of imagination, we stuffed them with complex parts. This disc, now, was just a disc; didn’t rely on complex gadgetry. It was an advanced ‘thing’ by itself.
Despite acquainting myself with the bat-cave, several of Lex Luthor’s evilly brilliant inventions and quite an overdose of quantum physics in a number of comics, that yellow disc seemed to outclass everything else.
Which is why when one day, I saw this TED talk, it led me to a serious contemplation about the harmonious symbiosis between comics, science, imagination and bikinis.
I regressed to a teen with a Mandrake comic on my knees. Lee Faulk, you got this one right, old man.
(Anand Venkateswaran is fascinated with people and with words. So he writes about people. Even when he's writing about food, film or formaldehyde. Fatten his ego or spit in his punch, at email@example.com)