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Stanford team proves Cambridge and Colbert wrong: Spider-Man can definitely climb walls

As comic-book publishers plot world domination, the plausibility of some of the industry’s most famous characters has come up for debate. Researchers at the University of Cambridge announced last week that Spider-Man’s wall-scaling capabilities were bogus, based on their scholarly calculations. But a Stanford team struck back, resurfacing their own Gecko Glove invention to prove that even if the tech isn’t perfect, Spider-Man’s superpowers are definitely possible.

The Cambridge team had claimed that sticky pads in Spider-Man’s hands and feet would not scale up in adequate proportion to support an average human’s weight and build. According to Cambridge, a gecko would be the largest physically possible version of a wall-climbing creature.

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“If a human, for example, wanted to walk up a wall the way a gecko does, we’d need impractically large sticky feet — our shoes would need to be a European size 145 or a U.S. size 114,” said Walter Federle, senior author of the paper and a member of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

Stanford researcher Elliot Hawkes set out to demonstrate a very different proof of Spider-Man’s sticky fingers with Gecko Gloves. While they won’t give anyone Spider-Man’s smooth moves, Gecko Gloves do demonstrate that scaling a wall is a plausible feat.

“Use a device like this and a human can climb a glass wall,” explained Elliot Hawkes, a mechanical engineering graduate student at Stanford. The design of the Gecko Glove spreads pressure across the wall-facing surface in order to support the weight of a human being, or a spider-bitten teenaged superhero. When Gecko Gloves were first introduced in 2014, the Stanford team included 24 adhesive tiles on each glove pad. The sticky tiles are layered with nanofibers that allow the gloves to release their adhesive hold when pulled away at the perfect angle. Depressive springs on the back of each tile allow for even distribution of pressure so that the gloves can support way more than a gecko’s weight.

“It’s a lot of fun, but also a little weird, because it doesn’t feel like you should be gripping glass,” Hawkes said in a press release touting the invention. “You keep expecting to slip off, and when you don’t, it surprises you. It’s pretty exhilarating.”

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These nanofibers and the theory behind the Gecko Gloves have also featured in Stanford projects like the StickyBot, a wall-climbing lizard robot. But when Stephen Colbert ran a segment on The Late Show explaining how “Science Has Ruined Spider-Man,” Hawkes couldn’t let it stand. That’s when Stanford set out to make a rebuttal video, demonstrating the power of Gecko Gloves and teaching everyone a lesson worthy of Peter Parker himself: With great power comes great responsibility. And don’t ever doubt Spider-Man.