Princeton, you can keep your Batman. (Frankly, his costume could use a little work, anyway.) What better location for a nerd-with-secretly-awesome-powers to begin working on a superhero suit that trumps even Bruce Wayne’s handiwork than Cambridge, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?
MIT alumnus Tony Stark, a/k/a Iron Man, may not have graduated summa cum laude (since you can’t actually do that at MIT), and well, okay, he may not even exist. But though the Iron Man get-up might be a stretch — a Wired article claimed that it would take an entire nuclear plant just to power it — that doesn’t mean that the MIT campus is lacking in Stark-like characters, some of whom have conducted research that rivals Stark’s mindboggling suit of armor.
Take professor of architecture — and Iron (Wo)Man in her own right — J. Meejin Yoon, who designed a “self-defense dress” in the style of porcupine warfare, using only piano wires for spikes. (Yoon insists it was an art project, not anything more belligerent.)
The award for killer haute couture, however, goes to Hugh Herr, whose name rings somewhat close to the real-life inspiration for Tony Stark, Howard Hughes (only without the pesky mental illness).
With eyes the color of steel, hair neatly combed back from a strikingly handsome face, and a dapper suit, Herr looks every bit the part of a superhero. His story takes us back to 1982, when, Herr says, “My goal was to be the best climber in the world.”
At age 17, the mountaineering prodigy attempted a summit of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington with a friend, but got lost in a blizzard. By the time rescuers pulled the two teenagers out of the snow, they were barely alive, having endured subzero temperatures for days. And while their lives might have been spared, Herr’s legs weren’t — after months of trying to save the limbs, doctors decided to amputate below both knees.
In those days, Herr says, prosthetic legs were basically dead weight. There was no sensitivity to the tissue, and no real mobility. Scoffing in the face of the limiting options, he decided to simply design his own body parts — starting from scratch. “It’s very hard to attach a machine to a body,” he says — human physiology is so perfectly engineered that it’s hard to recreate.
Herr now holds multiple patents for products that not only help injured veterans and people with multiple sclerosis, but whose names — the Computer-Controlled Artificial Knee, the Powered Ankle-Foot Prosthesis — sound a bit like new additions to the Wii Fit collection. In 2007, the MIT Media Lab’s Biomechatronics Group, headed by Herr, invented a motorless exoskeleton that can carry 80 percent of an 80-pound load.
Citing a wealth of funding from the Department of Defense, Herr says, “After every major war, there’s a spike in innovation.” Appropriately, Tony Stark has gone through several conflicts in his character’s evolution — from the Vietnam War, in Stan Lee’s 1963 original comic, to the Gulf War, to Afghanistan in the 2008 film.
And just in case you were worried about the lack of a Kick-Ass superhero reference, it turns out that Herr’s daughter, Alex, has already climbed all the highest peaks in the White Mountains. And she’s only seven. “It must run in the blood,” he jokes.
Anyway, if we were Mickey Rourke, we’d watch our back. After all, Herr just achieved another coveted and seemingly impossible feat: last year, he got tenure.