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Professor shares the science behind a super power

August 08, 2013

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Professor of Biology Kellar Autumn is no stranger to the idea that super powers exist—at least in nature. The geckos in his adhesion research have often been likened to superheroes.

Autumn recently discussed his work on Canadian Broadcasting Company’s Radio Active.

“Forget Spider-Man,” Autumn said. “We should have Gecko Girl instead. Geckos can climb better than spiders; in fact, they eat them for lunch.”

Through years of research, Autumn has found that geckos are able to stick to different surfaces thanks not to suction or any glue-like substance, but through much less obvious means. Weak molecular attractions—van der Waals forces—allow the gecko to utilize the millions of microscopic hairs on its feet to adhere to almost any surface. In short, their abilities depend on geometry and physics.

“A gecko using all 6.5 million hairs on its feet would generate around 130 kilograms of adhesion force,” Autumn said. “Each hair is controlled not chemically, but mechanically. This suggests that we can construct similar hairs out of virtually anything.”

Listen to Radio Active Department of Biology

Zibby Pillote ’14 contributed to this story.

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