Understanding Aquaman: The science and philosophy behind the superhero

With the latest Justice League movie coming to theaters this Christmas, we ask: what does Aquaman represent? And could he really talk to sea creatures?

With the latest Justice League movie coming to theaters this Christmas, we ask: what does Aquaman represent? And could he really talk to sea creatures? Faculty in the College of Arts & Sciences weigh in.


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Half-human, half-Atlantean, Aquaman has never been as famous or beloved as his fellow DC Justice Leaguers Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. His powers never seemed as impressive as theirs, and for a few decades, he was hard to take seriously, thanks to his presence on 1970s television shows, ”Superfriends,” and ”Man from Atlantis,” where Patrick Duffy's performance inspired little more than a new, funny way for kids to swim at the neighborhood pool. But a new, big budget movie will be in theaters this Christmas, capitalizing on the Marvel/DC superhero zeitgeist and aspiring to elevate Aquaman to the realm of the truly heroic.

While the Comic-Con crowd is carefully watching every trailer—and posting their criticisms and enthusiasms online—faculty members in the College are examining ideas and theories that connect to Aquaman's story in fascinating ways. Why do we remain so interested in these superhero stories? What is it that ensures their popularity 70 years after they first appeared in WWII-era comic books? What does science tell us about underwater communication and navigation? Can we ever learn to ”talk” to whales and dolphins?

An Ear for It

Dr. Winston Lancaster, assistant professor in the Department of Biology.Dr. Winston Lancaster, assistant professor in the Department of Biology.While Aquaman can communicate with all manner of marine life, Dr. Winston Lancaster, assistant professor in the Department of Biology, says the reality is much more complex. ”First of all, things sound very differently underwater,” he says. ”Sound travels more than three times faster in water, and that speed makes it very hard to know where sounds are coming from.”

”Think about being at the lake, how you can hear boats underwater even if you can't see them on the surface,” he explains. ”But under the surface you can't tell where they are or if they're coming toward you or away from you. Directionality is very different underwater, and that's because the sound travels so much faster.”

Lancaster, whose degrees are in zoology, geology, and human anatomy, studies the structure and function of the ears of marine mammals. A teaching faculty member at UAB responsible for all sections of human anatomy (a course taken by more than 900 students each year, he points out), Lancaster pursues his research curiosities via the lab of a former colleague who studies calling and hearing in dolphins. ”It's hard enough to study small marine mammals that can be moved to a tank, much less large ones,” he says. ”It's virtually impossible, in fact. So, we're applying an engineering technique called finite element analysis to build a model of how we think these animals hear.”

Among marine mammals, the larger whales are sensitive to low frequencies, Lancaster says. They can hear over very long distances, because low-frequency sound waves travel farther than high-frequency ones. ”These frequencies are lower than 25 hertz, which is about the same as the lowest A on a piano keyboard,” he says. ”What's fascinating is those sound waves are so low that they're actually three times longer than the length of the entire body of a blue whale. The question is, if the ear is small and located just up at the whale's head, how can it hear that entire sound wave?”

Conversely, smaller marine mammals hear high-frequency sounds, which they also use to echolocate. ”They emit sounds and then listen to the bounce-back,” Lancaster says. ”That's really good for directionality, but those higher-frequency waves can only travel over short distances.” Big whales, on the other hand, cannot echolocate at all.

Regardless of the type of hearing these marine animals use, Lancaster says, ”They live in a world of sound. Visual orientation is severely limited, since below about 200 feet there is almost no light at all.”

""”The whale ear is basically unchanged since these mammals returned to the sea 40 million years ago,” he continues, pointing out that different marine mammals have different ear structures. If you look at high-resolution scans of whales, the ear bones are very easy to see because they're so dense. But the soft tissues of muscle, fat, and cartilage are much harder to see on the scans. Dolphins' inner ears are suspended in these fatty, fleshy tissues and are not connected to the skull by other bones. That isolation cuts down on sound vibration in their heads, which improves their sense of directionality. Whereas large whales' inner ears are connected bone-to-bone, useful for an animal using low frequency sounds and no echolocation.

Which brings us back to Aquaman.

”How would he communicate?” Lancaster asks, genuinely puzzling over the question. ”He would need to be able to hear the lower frequencies so he could talk to the big whales. But he'd also need the ears of smaller whales so he could echolocate with them, which is a completely different anatomy. I'm not saying it's not possible, it's just curious to think about.”

I Need a Hero

Meanwhile, Dr. Matt King, assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy, teaches smaller classes of students who sign up for his ”Philosophy and Superheroes” course. It's a class he invented at UAB and will be teaching for the third time this fall.

”Philosophy is considered a 'discovery major,' meaning students' first exposure is in college,” King explains. ”And since there's no accurate representation of philosophy in popular culture, this seemed like a good way to teach it. Superheroes are ubiquitous, and the worlds they inhabit are easy to co-opt as a familiar context and use to teach an unfamiliar discipline. It's simply a framework for discussing philosophical ideas.”

Matt King, assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy.Matt King, assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy.Unlike Lancaster's course, a prerequisite for all pre-health majors, King's is a special topics class and is open to anyone. (”It requires no pre-requisites either way, neither superheroes nor philosophy,” he says.) The course has clearly established pedagogical goals: to get students excited about philosophy, and to teach the fundamentals of the discipline.

”I update the course each time, engaging with more recent movies,” he says. ”But it always starts with moral philosophy and expands from there. We're looking at the decisions these superheroes make and their rationale for it. And these thought experiments are fairly easy to do with comic book characters. They've been tweaked so many times, yet it doesn't confuse the myth or undermine the character in any fundamental way. Which in itself is an interesting question of fictional truths.”

For example, King's students examine the role of state authority, public accountability, and the obligations we have as individuals to serve our own interests versus others' via the 2016 film, "Captain America: Civil War."

In the Spider-Man myth, teenager Peter Parker initially hesitates to use his new superpowers to help others. That resistance ultimately contributes to the death of Parker's beloved Uncle Ben. Parker, consumed with guilt, adopts the mantra, ”with great power comes great responsibility,” and assumes the role of Spider-Man. ”Philosophy has a similar principle,” King says. ”'If you can help, you should help.' But you can see the complications that suggests. Take Superman: he doesn't have to eat or sleep, so he's always available to anyone who needs help, all over the world. So, can Superman have friends? Is this obligation to help fair to Spider-Man and Superman?”

Additionally, the Superman story allows students to consider the idea of how names and identity are connected—or aren't—a philosophy explored in depth by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century. Mill considered the two names the ancient Greeks had for the planet Venus: the god Phosphorus (the Morning Star), and the god Hesperus (the Evening Star). Can we use two names for the same thing?

”Think about it this way: Lois Lane would never want to have lunch with Clark Kent, but she would love to go to dinner with Superman,” King says. ”We can understand that. But aren't they just two names for the same person? What is it about one that is different from the other? How can we hold these different identities in our minds while still understanding they are one and the same person?”

While King mostly teaches ethics courses, "Philosophy and Superheroes" allows him to explore many philosophical ideas, such as our sense of self. ”We really think about ourselves as having two identities: the psychological and the physical,” he says. ”We know we can change physical things about a person without changing who they are, while psychological changes are more fundamental to a person's identity. What we call dementia today is often presented as body-switching in fiction. And these kinds of schisms between the mind and body in superheroes are interesting to explore.”

”In the Wolverine story, he has his memory wiped more than once over his long lifespan,” King says. ”That makes his psychology different. So I ask my students, 'Should Wolverine feel guilt about the bad things he did in the past but he doesn't remember doing?'”

shell

When it comes to Aquaman, King refers to another classic philosophical text, ”What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” written in the 1970s by Thomas Nagel. ”The article examines the idea that we can't really know what it's like to be a bat, because we can't echolocate,” King says. ”There's been some recent pushback on that—some science has shown that humans can do a sort of proto-location. But the question remains as to whether we can really understand it or represent it and other powers and experiences in film or comic books. Daredevil is blind but can echolocate. How do you depict this from a viewer's standpoint? It's not like dogs and bees, which have eyes but see differently from humans. How does Ant-Man control ants? How does Aquaman talk to fish and whales? Can they really have the same thoughts?”

(Not Entirely) Suspending Disbelief

But "Aquaman" is just a movie, right? A bit of escapist fun that allows us to enter a fictional world that's radically different from our own—a story chock-full of bad guys, big climactic battles, and the charismatic, heroic figure (and his or her sidekick) that saves humanity at the end.

It is that. It's why we'll pay too much for the tickets and the concessions and participate in the cultural moment. But maybe in the car on the way home, or in the days after you see the movie, think about our research areas, and how our faculty are using these contemporary myths to teach in innovative ways. It's the interdisciplinary strength of the College of Arts and Sciences, where the empirical science of whale ears lives right alongside the mind/body divide symbolized by The Hulk.

How can we accept this tattooed, long-haired, Polynesian-version of the superhero as ”real” when there have been so many other versions before? Can Aquaman really communicate with marine life? And what does it say about us that we, for a few hours anyway, believe that he can?

Worth pondering at your local multiplex this December.

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