Mister Terrific gets it right

By Phil Plait | November 12, 2011 9:02 am

I get mail. Some good, some bad, some cryptic. In the past few days I’ve gotten some of the latter; people telling me I should take a look at the new DC Comics reboot of "Mister Terrific", a super-genius superhero who uses science and intellect to defeat the forces of evil.

The thing is, nobody would tell me why. OK, I figured, I’ll check it out when I get a chance.

Then I got another email, this time from my pal Eric Wallace, who writes for the TV show "Eureka". And who, it so happens, writes "Mister Terrific"! He asked me if I’d like to get a copy of the first couple of issues, and not being a complete idiot, I said yes.

I got them in the mail the other day, and sat down to read them. By the time I got to the end of the first issue, all the cryptic notes became clear to me. It’s because of this panel, where Michael Holt (aka Mister Terrific) is holding a fund raiser for a politician:

Ha! Perfect!

And does it sound familiar? It should. Unfortunately, this exact scene has precedent in reality. Too bad there’s no genius billionaire superhero science-enthusiast IRL who could do this.

Of course, on the next page, a mind-control device makes Holt want to kill the Senator. But it is a comic book.

And "Mister Terrific" looks like a pretty good book. I’ll note that since it’s a reboot, I’m walking in to the middle of what looks like a lot of back story, but that’s going to be true of most big-title books these days. That’s OK though. It’s the science in comic books that I love, from Bose-Einstein condensates (fact) to the ninth dimension (fiction, kinda)… and even to the politician who supports it (fact? Fiction? Hmmm).

Comments (20)

  1. Joseph G

    Hah! That’s fantastic!

    I’m going to show this to my comic-book-loving, completely-apathetic-re-science friend. Who knows? Maybe I can get him to start reading science blogs ;)

  2. Chet Twarog

    I went to a rally supporting Elizabeth Warren in Worcester, MA, this afternoon. After her speech, she stayed to personally greet those who came as they exited the North High School auditorium. I introduced myself as a retired USAF 1st Lt veteran and an Atheist reminding her that perhaps 10% of her supporters might be atheists and could she please support us, too? And, then handed her Philip Kitcher’s book “Science in a Democratic Society”, Prometheus Books.
    Sorry, Phil, there as no discussion about “Death from the Skies”!

  3. Not superhero comics like Mr. Terrific, but I assume you’ve seen Jim Ottaviani’s graphic novels, particularly “T-Minus.” Highly recommended if you haven’t. He’s got a new one out about Feynman that I haven’t read yet but is getting good reviews.

    Another graphic novel that gets it right is “Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow,” which really captures the spirit of growing up a child of the space age.

    Also “Laika” by Nick Abadzis and “First in Space” by James Vining (about Ham the chimp), both good.

  4. jaranath

    I agree with the basic sentiment (encourage support for science in general), but was the comic seriously arguing that was sufficient reason to select a candidate? Science is extremely important, but so are plenty of other issues in politics. Regardless of party, I can’t take a suggestion that a pro-science position overrides all others seriously. I hope there’s some missing context, such as he’s hosting fundraisers for all the pro-science candidates. Though even then the implication is pro-science = get money, regardless of other factors.

  5. ZADL

    Mr Terrific has been an atheist for years in the comics. I’ve always admired that, even though it’s frequently been mishandled and awkward from a writing perspective.

    It’s wierd because in the comics, gods exist like tables do. So in that context, it’s almost irrational for him to disbelieve when many of his companions have died, been resurrected, and in one or two cases served a stint as “god’s instrument of vengeance on Earth” (AKA the Spectre).

    In the comics, unlike real life, you can meet god, go to heaven or hell, hang out, and come back. Maybe with the new DC Universe continuity, they’ll fix that.

  6. Messier Tidy Upper

    Too bad there’s no genius billionaire superhero science-enthusiast IRL who could do this.

    Richard Branson? Bill Gates? Until very recently Steve Jobs?

    It’s the science in comic books that I love, from Bose-Einstein condensates (fact) to the ninth dimension (fiction, kinda)… and even to the politician who supports it (fact? Fiction? Hmmm).

    What a politician who supports the ninth dimension?! ;-)

    Or do you mean a polly who supports the science?

    Well, I do think there’s a number of those in fact. On the Democratic Party side we have quite a few – Gabrielle Giffords being my favourite – and on the Republican side, well, John Huntsman? Mitt Romney? Maybe?

    As someone noted a few months ago in another thread here both parties have astronaut politicians such as John Glenn and Harrsion Schmitt in their ranks with the Republicans having more of them. You’d think those politicians would have to be pro-science and have a positive influence, right? Or at least pro-much of science although former Moon-walker geologist turned Republican senator Schmitt has become a Climate Contararian so .. yeah, not necessarily positive for *all* fields of science.

  7. Messier Tidy Upper

    As someone noted a few months ago in another thread here both parties have astronaut politicians such as John Glenn and Harrsion Schmitt in their ranks with the Republicans having more of them.

    See :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/09/09/apollo-17-then-and-now/

    &

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/09/09/apollo-17-then-and-now/#comment-416006

    esp.

    Thanks again to Vince RN for that.

  8. Fiddlepixels

    Chet Twarog, thank you for saying that to Elizabeth Warren. The book seems like a good idea too.

  9. Messier Tidy Upper

    FWIW, Politics and science~wise, I don’t think either party has really delivered when it comes to supporting space travel – not since JFK – and neither major US political party has a greatly consistent record of supporting science. As usual with a lot of things, neither partisan political side is perfect and both have very flawed records.

    My impression, right or wrong, as an observer from the other side of the planet, has always been that the Republicans are somewhat more pro-space exploration than the Democratic party. OTOH, the Republicans have also been more in favour of Creationism and have been adamant Climate Contrarians. The Democratic party side though tend to be more into New Age woo and Alt-Med nonsense and are less pro-”big” science incl. space exploration and development or so I gather.

    Barack Obama is neither the Messiah nor the anti-Christ and the same applies to Mitt Romney and even Rick Perry. Time, I think that both political sides lowered the polarising rhetoric, cooled the debates metaphorical temperature, put hyperbole aside and recognised that politicans are all just flawed humans following particular, blinkered, fallible ways of thinking and acting.

    If somebody thinks the best answer to something is a politician, politicial party or political ideology then I think they’re asking the wrong question and misplacing their trust. Unless its a quiz history question I guess! ;-)

  10. w_nightshade

    I always liked Mr. Terrific’s motto, which he used to have emblazoned on his chest, instead of a logo:

    FAIR PLAY

  11. noen

    I think a more science positive political environment would be good but I don’t think being “pro-science” should be a single issue for picking your candidate. The US has long had an anti-intellectual electorate. Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” is over 40 years old and yet still valid in today’s political scene.

    The only reason that Liberals can get away with nonsense like “Facts have a liberal bias” is because the Right has gone so far overboard in their hatred for intellectual elites and paranoid conspiracy theories that they’ve become a laughing stock. But liberals can hold nutty ideas too, just… different ones than those on the right.

    The truth is that science is completely unable to inform us about what is the *right* thing to do. It can only tell us, given one’s objective is XYZ you need to adopt policy A and reject policy B. Science cannot point you in the right moral direction, it can only tell you how to get there.

  12. Gwalachmai

    Too bad there’s no genius billionaire superhero science-enthusiast IRL who could do this.

    Mike Lazaridis, only recently dropped out of “billionaire” status, has created and donated huge amounts of money to the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

  13. Z

    One of the things I really liked about (likely pre-reboot) Mr. Terrific was that his best bud and fellow genius, Pieter Cross, was a devout Catholic, but the two were still friends. They even had long, and very respectful, conversations about faith, what it means, and where the line between science and faith has to be drawn. And old Holt’s actually got some good points: yeah, there’s magicians and gods and crazy nonsense around where he comes from, but that doesn’t mean you should worship it, and that doesn’t mean there isn’t science behind it.

  14. James(the militant agnostic)

    @Noen

    Actually, there is a whole field of science devoted to “Morality”, among other things, in the form of studies on Behavioural Economics by researchers like Dan Ariely.

    Science CAN tell us what is the *right* thing to do, and often it is the opposite direction of where your moral “gut instinct” would mislead you.

    (Darwin says love thy neighbour for reasons of mutual advantage)

  15. noen

    Dan Ariely? You mean the advertising man with NO background in economics? Why should I take him seriously? How does economics, which is nothing more than a description of how people act with respect to money, tell me how I *should* act?

    “Science CAN tell us what is the *right* thing to do” — No it can’t and you have given no reason to support your assertion. I have given a reason why science can *never* tell one what one ought to do. It is because science is descriptive and normative. Tell me how facts can tell me what values I ought to have. Observing that most people do X for reasons A, B or C does not tell me why I ought to do X.

    “Darwin says love thy neighbour for reasons of mutual advantage” — Darwin says nothing of the sort. Social Dawinism??? Really?? You mean the people who gave us scientific racism, eugenics, imperialism, Nazism and fascism? You need to do better than glib tropes and crap you read on some web site. You’re aware of course that Steven Pinker is a laughing stock and E.O. Wilson has repudiated his former beliefs, right? You also have to do better than argument from authority. Give *reasons* for your claims.

  16. Joseph G

    @ James, noen, others: Here’s an interesting blog that looks at the intersection between science/skepticism and ethics. I recently met the author at a little skeptics’ gathering in my city. It’s an interesting topic that I think has a lot of room for exploration.

  17. Lee Turner

    As an Evangelical Christian I have no problem with science, but I do love the stereotype. In no way does it further polarize america.

  18. Nigel Depledge

    Jaranath (4) said:

    I agree with the basic sentiment (encourage support for science in general), but was the comic seriously arguing that was sufficient reason to select a candidate? Science is extremely important, but so are plenty of other issues in politics. Regardless of party, I can’t take a suggestion that a pro-science position overrides all others seriously. I hope there’s some missing context, such as he’s hosting fundraisers for all the pro-science candidates. Though even then the implication is pro-science = get money, regardless of other factors.

    Ah, but what if all policy-making were to be evidence-based . . . ?

  19. Dwight

    Due to this entry, I tried out the first few issues of Mister Terrific. It’s been a while since I’ve read a “super-hero” comic. In the second issue, Mike Holt creates a “sonic black hole” and that sort of soured me… being a ridiculous concept. Some of the other science concepts seemed to be science-based BS: that is, using science words in odd ways.

    Conclusion = not impressed.

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