Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s proof that Superman’s glasses would’ve hidden his alter-ego

We may be closer than ever to answering a question that has troubled comic-book fans for decades: just how does Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, get away with such a flimsy disguise?

Finally, researchers at the University of York have been able to show that small alterations to a person’s appearance, such as wearing glasses, can significantly hinder positive facial identification.

While the research has the ability to settle arguments over whether Clark Kent’s disguise is sufficient – and kill dead a million awful comedian’s jokes on the subject – the research does have some serious implications as well.

“The question of whether the inhabitants of Metropolis could be realistically deceived by Superman’s simple disguise has been rumbling since the comic books first arrived on the stands, but the question becomes a serious one when applied to real-world security issues,” said Dr Robin Kramer from the University of York’s Department of Psychology.

“When a security guard checks a passport photo against the person standing in front of them, they do not have the luxury of familiarity with that face, as Lois does with Superman/Clark Kent. This is something we wanted to investigate further, because we know from previous studies that people are relatively poor at matching faces in various guises when the person is unfamiliar to them.”

Image and featured image courtesy of DC Comics

Image and featured image courtesy of DC Comics

The test that was used to prove glasses can impact how one person is distinguished from another involved showing participants a number of faces in various ‘natural’ poses.

The participants were then asked to decide whether each pair of images showed the same person or not.

Images were shown in three categories – pairs of faces that wore glasses, images where neither person wore glasses and photographs where only one person wore glasses.

In cases where both of the faces wore glasses or where neither wore glasses, accuracy was around 80%. However, when only one of the two faces wore glasses, performance was approximately 6% lower, a statistically significant decrease.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros

Image courtesy of Warner Bros

The results suggest that people generally find it difficult to correctly match unfamiliar and uncontrolled face images, but they are significantly worse when glasses are worn by only one of the faces.

“In real terms, glasses would not prevent Lois recognising that Clark is in fact Superman as she is familiar with him.  For those who do not know him, however, this task is much more difficult, and our results show that glasses do disrupt our ability to recognise the same unfamiliar person from photo-to-photo,” said Dr Kay Ritchie from the University of York’s Department of Psychology.

“We hope that this research can be used by legal authorities to help inform future policies on identification for security purposes, particularly in the UK where individuals who normally wear glasses are required to remove them for their identification cards.”

The research, Disguising Superman: How glasses affect unfamiliar face matching, is published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.

Liquid metal development sets us on a path to Terminator 2’s T-1000

Shape-shifting liquid metals that can be manipulated to form different structures are about to become reality, according to researchers from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

Led by Professor Kourosh Kalantar-zadeh, a group from the School of Engineering at RMIT is working on soft circuit systems that act like live cells, move around autonomously and communicating with each other.

If the notion sounds familiar it’s probably because we’ve all seen this idea in practise before.

It didn’t work out that great last time though – to say the least – as the idea comes from Terminator 2’s shape-shifting T-1000.

“Eventually, using the fundamentals of this discovery, it may be possible to build a 3D liquid metal humanoid on demand – like the T-1000 Terminator but with better programming,” said Kalantar-zadeh.

As well as building an autonomous T-1000, the researchers believe that liquid metal has potential applications in a range of industries including smart engineering solutions and biomedicine.

To get to that stage the RMIT engineers have been immersing liquid metal droplets in water that has had its concentrations of acid, base and salt components adjusted.

“Simply tweaking the water’s chemistry made the liquid metal droplets move and change shape, without any need for external mechanical, electronic or optical stimulants,” said Kalantar-zadeh.

“Using this discovery, we were able to create moving objects, switches and pumps that could operate autonomously – self-propelling liquid metals driven by the composition of the surrounding fluid.”

Image courtesy of Ged Carroll

Image courtesy of Ged Carroll

Modern electronics like smart phones and computers are mainly based on circuits that use solid state components, with fixed metallic tracks and semiconducting devices.

The researchers’ work will go a long way to creating elastic electronic components  that can be manipulated to create new circuits, rather than be stuck in one arrangement.

The precise conditions in which liquid metals can be moved or stretched are detailed in Nature Communications.