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Stanford engineers have good news for Stephen Colbert: It is plausible to climb like Spider-Man

Screenshot of Elliot Hawkes climbing wall.

Screenshot from video.

Stanford Report - January 28th, 2016 - by Bjorn Carey

Last week, Stephen Colbert took center stage on The Late Show and lamented that a recent study by zoologists at the University of Cambridge found that Spider-Man probably couldn't actually climb walls. The researchers ran the numbers and found natural adhesive forces scale in such a way that geckos are the largest animals that can stick to and climb vertical surfaces. The researchers say that humans' hands and feet simply aren't large enough to support the weight – Spider-Man would need adhesive pads covering 40 percent of his body to climb using the same physics as a gecko.

This caught the attention of Elliot Hawkes, a postdoctoral research fellow in mechanical engineering Professor Mark Cutkosky's lab. Hawkes notes that the Cambridge researchers' calculations are correct, but if you add some clever human engineering to the mix and distribute a person's weight evenly across an array of adhesive pads, the gecko's wall-climbing trick can be scaled up to work for humans. In fact, Hawkes and his colleagues showed this back in 2014, when they used a novel gecko-inspired adhesive to provide a strong enough grip – and yet an effortless release – for Hawkes to scale a glass wall. The handheld climbing apparatus is raw, but as this video shows, climbing like Spider-Man is plausible.

Originally published in Stanford Report