Spider-Man, the superhero bitten by a radioactive spider, is the brainchild of Steve Ditko and the late, great Stan Lee. He made his first appearance in 1962 in Amazing Fantasy #15 and has been marveling audience for decades with his super strength, spidey senses and ability to sling webs. While in the 2002 movie with Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man was able to create webs from a gland in his wrist (for some reason), in every movie since as well as the comics, his web fluid is a scientific creation. Let’s take a look at the science behind Spidey’s web fluid as well as the physics of being Spider-Man.
What Is Spider-Man’s Web Fluid?
A lot of speculation has gone into what Spider-Man’s web fluid actually is, but after more than 50 years in print, Marvel has not told it’s loyal readers what makes up Parker’s web fluid — but that hasn’t stopped us from guessing. According to the Marvel-verse, web fluid is a shear-thinning liquid which means that it’s solid until a shearing force is applied to it. The formula may be related to nylon because the fluid is cold-drawn at high pressure — up to 300psi though the number has changed over the years — to create the webs. This is the same process used to create nylon fabric.
Once the fluid comes into contact with air, it forms the webs we know and love. According to the comics, the web fluid has a tensile strength of 120lbs per square millimeter, though Parker’s first formula would dissolve naturally after an hour. It wasn’t until Doc Ock — Dr. Otto Octavius — took over Spider-Man’s body and improved the web formula that it needed a solvent to remove.
While we might never know what the real Spider-Man uses for his web fluid, the closest thing we have in the real world that might mimic it is carbon nanotubes. These tiny tubes are incredibly strong — capable of supporting 6,422 kilograms or 14,158lbs on that same square millimeter cross-section. That would create a material that could support some of the amazing feats we’ve seen Spider-Man accomplish, from stopping a train in Sam Raimi’s 2002 film to holding together a massive ferry in 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming”.
The only problem with carbon nanotubes is that, at least currently, they’re difficult to grow in any useful quantity. Scientists are hoping to change this, however, by irradiating the nanotubes to improve their strength. We might not have any radioactive spiders handy to turn us into web slingers, but irradiated carbon nanotubes could let us live out our Spider-Man fantasies.
What Will Scientists Discover Next?
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How Does Web Fluid Compare to Real-Life Spider Webs?
At a tensile strength of 120lbs per square millimeter, how do Peter Parker’s webs compare to the silk webs that spiders create in the real world?
Spiders would win in this competition if we’re using the info provided by Marvel comics. Spidey’s web fluid supports half a gigapascal of tension. Natural spider silk, on that same square millimeter cross-section, supports 1.75 gigapascals. That translates to 178 kilograms or 392.4 pounds of force. Spider silk is one of the strongest natural materials on the planet. It’s five times stronger than steel of the same thickness.
It’s not just the silk itself that creates this strength — it’s the way it’s woven. Each strand of silk is made up of thousands of nanostrands. Each of these nanostrands is only 20 millionths of a millimeter across, allowing the spider to fit thousands of them into each stand of silk that, by itself, is thinner than a human hair. This is why it’s so hard for scientists to create synthetic spider silk. We were creating things based on the assumption that the silk was one single strand. With thousands of nanostrands wrapped together, we now understand why this seemingly delicate material is stronger than steel of comparable thickness.
Between the comics and the movies, we’ve seen Spider-Man do nearly everything with his web fluid, from swinging through the city to capturing criminals, and even creating useful tools like parachutes and shields. Spiders in real life don’t make shields but they do create some incredibly elaborate webs and constructs with spider silk.
Funnel weaving spiders create a tunnel of the web that insects can wander down. Once entangled, the spider can eat at its leisure. Ogre-faced spiders build a tiny web net that they hold between their front two legs. When something crosses their path, they can throw the net and capture it. The diving bell spider captures a bubble of air with its web and actually lives underwater!
The Physics of Being Spider-Man
Being Spider-Man is about more than just shooting webs and catching bad guys. There’s a lot of physics that goes into flinging yourself around the city on the end of a spider web. According to the comics, the compressed web fluid can travel up to 60 feet, or further if it’s shot in a ballistic parabolic arc. Theoretically, Spidey could easily attach himself to street lights, buildings or even cranes as he does in the movies to move forward in those iconic swings.
If you’ve ever thrown a football, you’re already familiar with the concept of a ballistic parabolic arc. If you throw the ball straight to your teammate, it travels a limited distance with gravity dragging it town the entire time. Without enough strength behind the throw, it might not even reach its destination. So instead you throw it upward and forward at the same time, fighting against the pull of gravity while still providing forward momentum. The arc increases the distance that the football can travel, carrying it all the way down the field instead of straight into the ground.
In The Amazing Spider-Man, which starred Andrew Garfield in the titular role, director Marc Webb wanted the physics of Spider-Man to look as realistic as possible. He accomplished that by constructing custom rigs that allowed Garfield to swing like Spider-Man without needing to be bitten by a radioactive spider. At the bottom of those swings, the actor or his stunt double were moving at more than 40 miles per hour and pulling 3Gs. Webb compared it to being at the end of a whip.
The Science of Spider-Man
Spider-Man has been one of most favorite superheroes for decades, teaching us that with great power comes great responsibility. The science of Spider-Man might be based in fiction, but many of the friendly neighborhood superhero’s abilities might not be too far-fetched. While we might not have any radioactive spiders handy to give us our own superpowers, it might not be too long before we can make our own Spidey-style webs out of carbon nanotubes or similar materials. We wouldn’t recommend swinging through the streets of New York without a permit, though.
Taking a closer look at the science of Spider-Man and our other favorite superheroes gives us a new appreciation for the writers and the stories that they tell. Marvel superheroes have been part of our lives for decades, reminding us that everyone can make a difference, and everyone can be a hero — even without an Iron Suit or a radioactive spider bite. What superhero would you like to see us explore the science of next? Let us know in the comments below!