Poison Ivy : Toxic Love

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Poison IvyThe last few posts have focused on the heroes so let’s go for something a little different today and take a look at one of my favourite supervillainesses; Miss Pamela Lillian Isley AKA Poison Ivy[1]Poison Ivy bio.

Intelligent and dangerous, this lady is one potent femme fatale. Ivy is absolutely gorgeous and her body is to die for. Literally. The source of Ivy’s power is the fact her body manufactures killer toxins; it keeps her skin full of chlorophyll, her lips plump with venom and she secretes so many pheromones you just have to love her. As if that’s not enough when she’s not busy giving men the kiss of death she’s cooking up killer plants to do the job for her.

Ivy made her first appearance in the aptly named “Beware of Poison Ivy!”[2]Batman #181, June 1966. Our lady causes havoc at the museum by making everyone blind using her lipstick to detonate newsmen’s flash bulbs before capturing Batman’s heart using chloroform-based lipstick. The caped crusader is so hot for her he’s incapable of putting a “beautiful doll behind bars.” This doll hasn’t always been so beautiful though. Once upon a time she went by the name Pamela Lillian Isley; a mild-mannered botanist with huge nerd glasses, brown rats nest hair and frumpy clothing. Unfortunately, Pamela’s insane superior Dr.Jason Woodrue altered her body chemistry to be more plantlike as part of their peculiar hybrid project. Or if you prefer the film/TV version, there was a terrible lab accident involving toxic plant matter.

Regardless of the way it came about, Pamela was no more. In her place was the towering goddess we know as Poison Ivy. She emerged a plant-crazed nature lover who was capable of creating killer poisons, man-eating Venus flytraps and enzymes that turn humans into trees. While her body emits an abundance of plant-based perfumes and toxins that maim and kill other people, Ivy herself is immune. Which is a nice perk really.

Urushiol

Urushiol. R = C15H31, C15H29, C15H27 and C15H25

Now given her name, one would naturally assume that Ivy shares genetics with the plant commonly known as poison ivy. So let’s have a little look at that possibility. Poison ivy, or toxicodendron radicans[3]Further information on poison ivy if you want to get fancy about it, is a poisonous plant. Go figure. I’m sure everyone has had a run in with the stuff at some point or another. It causes an itchy and sometimes painful rash to erupt over the area of skin you’ve been unfortunate enough to touch it with. The cause of this delightful skin irritation is a compound found within the sap of the plant known as urushiol. Interestingly enough not everyone reacts to urushiol, around 15-30% of people take no notice of the stuff while in others it can cause anaphylaxis. If you do react to it however you’re in for an itchy and uncomfortable time known as urushiol-induced contact dermatitis, an incredibly fancy medical name for what is basically just a rash. All it takes is a salt grain sized amount to come into contact with your skin. To make matters worse, it will stick to virtually anything and remains potent for years, even after the plant itself has died. For those of you who won’t click the hyperlink, urushiol is a mixture of several closely related organic compounds. Each of which consists of a catechol (that’s an organic compound with a molecular formula of C6H4(OH)2) substituted with an alkyl (an alkane missing a hydrogen) chain that has 15-17 carbon atoms. Now I don’t know about you but I’ve never heard of our villainess causing a nasty rash so I think it’s suffice to say her body does not exude this particular compound. So what could she exude to cause death? Moulds and fungi have the capability of growing on human skin, causing, for example, athlete’s foot, so perhaps in Poison Ivy’s case her lips are coated with a plant substance. Not a particularly attractive thought unfortunately but a plausible one. Potentially, this substance could produce not only your standard chlorophyll and chloroplasts but also human toxins if the DNA within the cells mutated. In the case of a fungus, there wouldn’t even need to be a mutation. There are common mushroom toxins that would be capable of killing a human being[4]Mushroom poisoning and if Ivy was coated in something along those lines it would make death by a smooch a definite reality. But why stop at the lips? Who knows what sort of deadly toxic wasteland Ivy is hiding under her outfit.

That covers the killing part, but what about the attraction of victims in the first place? Obviously, she’s a pretty aesthetically alluring woman but that’s not necessarily enough to keep someone falling all over you. I suspect it would be more likely that she’s making use of her natural perfume; pheromones. That nifty little chemical substance that animals secrete to let the opposite sex of their species know it’s time to get it on. Mammal pheromone studies are still ongoing but they’re a fairly interesting area. A lot of work has been done on the vomeronasal organ[5]Further reading on the vomeronasal organ (VNO), a pheromone-sensing structure in the nasal cavities of animals. Given that the VNO is in the nasal cavity you would assume it’s wired into your sense of smell but that’s not the case. The VNO actually plays a far more important role, it doesn’t just identify perfumes and odours it also controls gender recognition[6]Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) findings on pheromones and gender recognition in mice.

That being the case it’s likely that Ivy secretes pheromones that make her utterly irresistible to men. Not only could she make herself irresistible to them, she could also probably make use of it to affect them in many other ways. Papers report that the VNO system controls genetically preprogrammed territorial, social ranking and maternal behaviours[7]Catherine Dulac report on pheromones and genetic preprogrammed behaviour. This effectively means if she chose to, she could potentially cause utter chaos and rule Gotham.

While Ivy, as a scientist, has a whole host of other tricks up her sleeve I’ll cover her creations another time. For now I think it’s fair to say that her natural charisma could definitely knock you dead.

References   [ + ]

1. Poison Ivy bio
2. Batman #181, June 1966
3. Further information on poison ivy
4. Mushroom poisoning
5. Further reading on the vomeronasal organ
6. Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) findings on pheromones and gender recognition in mice
7. Catherine Dulac report on pheromones and genetic preprogrammed behaviour

The World’s Greatest Detective

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BatmanWith the last instalment of Rocksteady‘s trilogy on the shelves and a new film on the way let’s get topical and stroll over to DC for a spell.

I’m going to digress here somewhat but have many of you had the chance to take Arkham Knight for a spin? I picked up my copy at the GAME midnight launch but my partner actually hijacked it immediately so while I haven’t played much I have watched a fair bit of play through and it’s gorgeous. I won’t launch into a full on review, that’s not really the purpose of this blog, but it was definitely created with the ultimate Batman fantasy in mind. You can glide, brood, fight, dive and drive your way through a gritty, dark Gotham city. The addition of the pimped out Batmobile and the DLC content that make Harley and the Red Hood available is hit and miss; it’s all a matter of personal preference. If you’re a fan of the previous two instalments I would recommend getting your hands on a copy of the studio’s wonderful farewell to Gotham.

Now then, back to the topic at hand, personally the only thing I’m overly fond of from Gotham is Dr. Harleen Frances Quinzel, M.D.[1]Harley Quinn Bio courtesy of DC Frankly though, she’s a bag of crazy that even I don’t want to wade through; psychoanalysis is not enjoyable. So while I may drop in on her and her lady Miss Ivy later to discuss the antitoxin business, today is all about the Dark Knight himself. Batman[2]Batman Bio courtesy of DC is a superhero with a distinct lack of superpowers. There was no accident with a radioactive animal, no cosmic rays or science experiments gone wrong, he keeps the streets clean through nothing more than indomitable willpower and Kevlar fuelled physical prowess. That’s not to say that there’s nothing to talk about concerning the Bat and science. In fact, the man himself said ‘I’ve got to know science thoroughly to become a scientific detective.'[3]Finger, Bill(w) Kane, Bob(p) Schwartz, Lew Sayre(p) Kaye, Stan(i) “How to Be the Batman” Detective Comics Vol 1 #190 [Dec, 1952] Needless to say Mr. Wayne certainly succeeded.

As far as Batman and science is concerned it’s all a technological love affair. He makes up for his distinct lack of superpowers with his wallet, enabling him to equip himself with the finest of gadgets. I’m actually going to roll back time to the good ol’ 1950’s for this and take a look at a few of the bits and pieces in the comics because they entertain me.

For this week we have the portable jet pack. Tired of running around after all those nefarious criminals in Gotham, Batman clearly decided it was about time he had the means to fly between buildings. So was it real life science or just entertaining malarkey? As far as I’m aware this addition was somewhere around the mid 1950’s, a time period in which there were actually a lot of articles kicking around the scientific magazines of the time discussing scientists attempts to develop jet packs. Some of you may already know the name Wendell F. Moore, a scientist of the time who developed a working rocket belt. ‘How did it work?’ I hear you say. Why, through the magic of chemistry of course! I’m going to start throwing out chemical names and sciencey words now so bear with me. The jetpack would have used pressure from liquid nitrogen to force hydrogen peroxide into a catalyst chamber. Here it would have reacted with silver screens coated with samarium nitrate. Mixing all this together would cause a jet of incredibly hot, high-pressured steam to come shooting out the bottom providing thrust.[4]In-depth look into Jet Packs Chemically it all sounds complicated but it’s Balloonactually similar in principle to those super fun rocket balloons; if you blow up a rocket balloon and hold the neck closed the pressure inside the balloon is higher than the pressure outside it, it just doesn’t have anywhere to go because the force is equally spread out (unless you blow it up too enthusiastically, then it’s going to explode in your face). By releasing the neck of the balloon you’re creating an imbalanced force so the air will shoot out the back to try and even things out; thus creating thrust.[5]A fun, simple experiment to demonstrate thrust In a rocket it’s all those fancy chemicals producing the gas and subsequent pressure instead of the spluttering wheezing mess that is a person after blowing up a balloon.

Basically, some poor unsuspecting sod ended up with a high powered rocket strapped to his/her back. Should that poor individual have found themselves with a case of the fidgets then they would have sustained quite the nasty burn from the steam. I like to hope they had incredibly durable legs as well seeing as their pins were the only landing gear available. Factor in the noise levels and the fact it could only hold enough fuel for somewhere in the region of twenty seconds of flight and it’s all very impractical. The pack was scrapped when Moore died but the dream didn’t die there.

Interesting story time. Jump with me to 1992 when three men decided it was time for a rocket revival. Brad Barker, Joe Wright and Larry Stanley founded the American Rocket Belt Corporation to develop their new version of the rocket pack and by ’94 they had a working prototype; the RB 2000 Rocket Belt. They re-jigged Moore’s design using light alloys and composite materials and boosted the fuel capacity resulting in an astounding maximum flight duration of… drum roll please… 30 seconds. In the rocket pack world the RB 2000 was a revelation. Sadly, things went sour. Wright developed an escalating meth addiction, Barker was accused of stealing money and Stanley had had enough. To cut a long story short, Barker beat Stanley pretty viciously and stole their prototype. At some point later down the line, what should debut on TV but the RB 2000. Naturally, Stanley was pissed and convinced Wright to file a joint lawsuit against Barker. This is where things got interesting. Wright was brutally murdered in his own home, Stanley won the lawsuit but Barker fled again. Not willing to give up what he was due Stanley had four men kidnap Barker; he was held captive for eight days in a small box before he managed to escape. Stanley served an eight year sentence and to this day the RB 2000 has never been recovered, which is a shame because it had potential.[6]Full article on “The Jetpack Murder”

The take away from all the rambling is that our Caped Crusader gets a gold star for his feasible use of science and engineering. Go’n yourself DC.

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