Friday, May 4, 2012

Top 5 Real-Life Super Powers

The Avengers comes out this weekend, another comic book come to life featuring an ensemble of superheroes. I'm not a huge comic-book nut, but it is fun to imagine being Superman, or Captain America, in this case. For some reason, though, I find the plausible far more intriguing and exciting than the fantastical; and there's the inspiration behind today’s Top Five Day...

Top 5 Real-Life Super Powers

5a. Super Strength. In the past decade, there have been two reported cases of babies born with a gene that blocks the production of myostatin, a natural protein that keeps your muscles from growing too large. The result is that, even as infants, the children were quite strong, with bulging biceps and six-pack stomachs. No one knows yet how this will affect them as they age, since the human body is such a delicate machine; tendons, organs, and other tissues may not be able to keep up. (Think about adding a 600-hp engine to your Honda Civic: sounds good, but in reality it would just blow out your transmission.)

5b. Feeling No Pain. In a similar vein, some people suffer from a very rare genetic disorder that prohibits them from sensing pain. This is a “careful what you wish for” scenario, though, because while it might sound terrific – you’d never be bothered by a stubbed toe, could play through any injury in a football game, and probably couldn’t lose in a fight – it’s actually horrific.

Think about it: As a child, it’s difficult to learn even basic lessons like, “Don’t put your hand inside of a fire.” This family’s child would mutilate himself as a baby, gnawing on his tongue during teething and not feeling a thing as he bled. Sadly, many kids with the condition don’t make it into adulthood. But it does qualify as an incredible, if tragic, superpower.

4. Bulletproof Skin. Plenty of super heroes, from Batman to Iron Man, have no actual super-human ability aside from the time, money, and necessary know-how to create powerful gadgets, weapons, and bodysuits. The real-life heroes in our military have access to some comic-book caliber technology, from bulletproof vests and helmets to night vision goggles and weapons straight out of science-fiction. And if a vest seems too bulky, now scientists are working on bulletproof skin.

3. Alcohol Tolerance. This may not seem like a super power at first blush; after all, most people can build up a healthy tolerance with lots of... um... “practice.” But if you can keep pace at a party and still keep it together while those around you slobber, slur, and go all in on a pair of fives, you’ll come off looking like a god among mortals. Or at least a decisive Jack Donneghy type.

Interestingly, an allergic reaction to alcohol is common in some cultures (Asian and Native American, in particular), while it’s believed that Europeans – who were more likely to live in cities a few hundred years ago – actually evolved with a high tolerance for the drug, because people drinking beer or wine instead of water were less susceptible to cholera and other water-borne diseases. Crazy, right? But the ability to tolerate the enzymes in beer saved a lot of lives in Dickensian London.

2. Perfect Pitch. A select few musicians, like Mozart and Mariah Carey, have the ability to recognize and replicate a musical note without any context whatsoever, which is called perfect or absolute pitch. This means they can hear any tone, and name the note – identifying a car’s horn as an A-sharp, for instance, while noting that the engine drones along in E-flat. (Schmoes like me have relative pitch, meaning I can carry a tune in relation to itself. But I can’t just start singing a song in G without actually hearing a G first.)

While only about one in 10,000 Americans possesses this gift, it may be more prevalent than once believed. For one thing, some people are born with perfect pitch but lose the ability if they don’t begin studying music formally at an early enough age. What’s more interesting, though, is that musicians who grew up speaking a tonal language like Vietnamese or Mandarin – where a word’s meaning can vary depending on the pitch – are almost nine times more likely to exhibit perfect pitch. So it may be just a matter of nurturing the ability at a young age. Whatever the case, as a musician, this is just about the ultimate super power. Except for…

1. Poison Ivy Immunity. About 15% of people out there do not react to urushiol, the chemical found in poison ivy, oak, and sumac sap. These real-life X-Men, like my dad, can just frolic through the woods in mid-July, in shorts, without a care in the world (well, except for the damned mosquitoes).

Can you imagine? Nearly every summer of my childhood, I spent weeks caked in calamine lotion, trying futilely to ignore that ferocious, gnawing itch of a poison ivy outbreak. It was pure torture. Even as an adult, the rash invariably brings me to the brink of tears after about a week. And yet some of you will never know that fate. What an amazing gift!

Do beware though: repeated exposure can eventually cause you to have a reaction, even if you’ve never been allergic to it before. And if you do come into contact with poison ivy, wash the area with lots of soap as soon as you can – it works.

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