[This text is a translation made by me – Lucas Miranda – of an article I wrote in portuguese in this very blog, published originally in Science Today Magazine, issue 346, aug.2018. Available here for Science Today subscribers]
Located in East Africa, Wakanda is the most technological fictional country in the world and the owner of the most precious fictional metal of the comics, the vibranium. The new Marvel Comics movie follows the story of the Black Panther, T’Challa, recently crowned King of Wakanda. In his coronation ritual, T’Challa takes a tea produced with the “Heart-Shaped Herb”, a plant found only in those lands, and it gives him special skills, such as greater strength and speed, faster healing factor, sharper senses, among others.
The new Wakandan king, as he takes over from his father, sets out on a mission to rescue a quantity of vibranium stolen by scientist Ulysses Klaw and for this he receives the support of his sister, Shuri (who is responsible for the technological area of the country) and the warriors Okoye (Wakanda’s chief of guard), and Nakia (a spy and a great humanist).
As the Vibranium is extremely valuable and powerful because of its properties, and since this metal only exists in Wakanda (and exists in very high quantity), the Wakandans have a great concern in keeping the country hidden from the rest of the world. To protect its people and prevent other countries from invading their lands to exploit them, scientists at Wakanda have developed a holographic cover at their borders.
Technology in Wakanda
There are many incredible technologies that the country has, such as flying cars, magnetic levitation trains, holographic displays, remote control aircraft, boots that do not make noise, retractable suit, etc. But for this text, let’s focus on one particular technology:
Black Panther’s uniform.
Developed by the Wakandan chief of technology, Shuri, this uniform is something that our science still can not reproduce. However, we can try to explain it through natural laws long known to our scientists. It is fundamentally based on the principle of energy conservation, which ensures that energy can not be created or destroyed, only transformed.
When a bullet is fired by a villain and is moving toward the Black Panther, it has a very high kinetic energy due to its high speed. The more energy the weapon provides for the bullet, the more kinetic energy it will have (and so the faster it will be). When the bullet strikes the uniform of the Wakandan king, this kinetic energy associated with the movement of the bullet is absorbed by its uniform and somehow stored. The mechanism by which this energy is stored is unknown, but there are some theories for this.
If you kick a soccer ball in the direction of a spring attached to a wall, the ball will push it until it is well compressed. As the spring is being compressed, it gains an energy that we call elastic potential energy, while the ball loses kinetic energy (that is, losing velocity). When the ball stops completely it means that it has transferred all its kinetic energy to the spring. The spring, which is now completely compressed, will seek its natural state (neither compressed nor stretched) and thus will push the ball to the opposite side. With this, the potential energy then stored in the spring will be converted back into kinetic energy of the ball and it will be thrown back.
Some people theorize the possibility of the vibranium, the metal of which the Wakandan uniform is made, possess an atomic structure similar to several infinitely small springs, which upon receiving any physical impact acquire a potential elastic energy, as if these micro springs were compressed. The great trump of his uniforms is the ability to store this potential energy, to distribute it throughout the costume, and to send it back under T’Challa’s mental command. This is already a mystery that only Wakandan science knows the answer to. But maybe one day we got there!
Another property of his uniform is its enormous lightness and flexibility associated with extreme hardness when hit by some impact, which ensures the protection of the Panther, but without compromising his agility in battle. This property is not so far from the real world. In 2017, an article was published in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, in which scientists describe the development of Diamene, a material composed of two layers of graphene, having a thickness equal to that of two atoms. Foldable as an aluminum foil, Diamene stiffens immediately against any impact and is a great alternative to bullet proof vests. The technology is very recent and expensive to be developed, but it is a matter of time until it becomes commercial.
Is Science a Black Woman Thing?
One important reason the film is so acclaimed is that Hollywood producers are finally looking at the importance of the representativeness.
It’s very significant watching a film with all the main cast composed by black people, which are not limited to comical, irrelevant, or evil roles.
A researcher at the Federal University of Juiz de Fora, Ph.D. Zélia Ludwig, has dedicated her time, as well as producing glasses for NASA and other incredible things in her laboratory, to study how the woman – and especially the black ones – has been treated in universities and research institutes.
In a speech held at the event of science communication “”Science to the Bar”, she affirms that
In the Exact Science you don’t see many women, and almost zero black women. And why? Because it has no model. You want to be what you see. if a young girl is told that math is a natural ability of boys (as my daughter heard of her teacher) or that she is meant to do girl stuffs, like cooking or housekeeping, she will believe it, and you’ll be responsible to anihilate a potential female scientist.”
According to the researcher, there are not many models of women in science and the cause of this is in factors ranging from the toys that parents give their children, and the phrases that their own daughter is accustomed to hear in school to the most notorious and violent cases of prejudice in the academic environment.
One of the several cases she reports is that of the day she heard from a professor of her own when she was researching at the University of São Paulo that he does not like to guide a woman in university because:
“When she is single, she keeps running after her boyfriend and does not dedicate to work; when she is married she complains about her husband and runs after her children; and when she’s separated she regrets it all, so she’s a problem for me. “
So putting a black woman as the most important scientist in a highly developed country, showing that women (and black women) can be scientists – or even warriors – is something very significant and important.
Different ways of defending the same cause
All this racial discussion that can be done about the cast of the movie is also done within the narrative itself, within the universe where the story takes place. Despite the great clash between antagonist and protagonist, both fight for the same cause, the protection of their people.
The divergence between them is only in the way this fight should be done. Like Professor Xavier’s thought in X-Men, King T’Challa bets on a defensive and peaceful protection of the people of Wakanda, preferring to hide than to take up arms and impose themselves to the world. Erik Killmonger, thinking more like Magneto, defends Wakandana supremacy through armed struggle and does not allow such a strong and developed people hide themselves in the shadows.
It is impossible to speak of Black Panther without associating it with the Party of the Black Panthers that emerged in the USA in the 60’s, although it is known that there was no influence from one to the other. During this period, three large groups emerged in the United States, with the intention of fighting for the rights of the black population. The Black Panthers differed from the other movements for betting on an armed struggle of their militants, being therefore considered a radical group and, consequently, suffering an atrocious persecution of the police.
Many compare antagonist Erik Killmonger to black leader Malcolm X, who, unlike his contemporary Martin Luther King, defended the supremacy and separatism of blacks and accepted the practice of violence as a form of protection. Although both defended the same cause: freedom, security and other rights of blacks.
Other people see Erik Killmonger, this complex character who can not be called a villain, the portrait of the black man born in the ghettos, created by life, heavily oppressed by the system and who becomes a violent subject and therefore marginalized as a form of defense and reaction.
The fact is that Black Panther is an important landmark for cinema. While X-Men can be seen as a great metaphor in favor of the struggle of social minorities such as the Black and LGBT population, Black Panther has widely opened up the problem of racial prejudice, reminding us that it still exists and, at the same time, showing a model of black and matriarchal society, technologically and scientifically advanced, and that the Wakandans didn’t have to give up their ancestry, their rites and their religiosity to achieve this state.
If Wakanda’s technology takes a long time to arrive in the real world, we should claim, at least, for more women and blacks in our science. We are in great need of them.
-> This text was originally published in my column at the “Science Today” magazine (issue 345, August/2018) and can be acessed – only by subscribers – in this link: http://cienciahoje.org.br/artigo/licoes-do-pantera-negra/