In the small Bolivian town of Chayanta, three brothers encountered a black and red spider - the poisonous black widow. Unaware of the danger the boys poked it with a stick, wanting to get bitten like their favorite superhero, Spiderman. How realistic can a comic book story get? 

With the black widow not being a radioactive creature nor anything like the comic book version, the 8, 10, and 12-year-old boys experienced muscle pains, fevers, and tremors. After helping one another get bitten and crying until their mom found them, they were rushed to a nearby health center.

Since the small center didn't have the necessary medication for the poisonous spider bites, they were transferred to Children's Hospital in La Paz and was discharged a week later. Local authorities reported the incident so that parents would be more careful since 'for children everything is real, movies are real, dreams can be real, and they are the illusion of our lifetime.'

Black widow spiders, just a little bigger than a regular paper clip, are notorious for their venom. A fatal bite contains poison 15 times stronger than found in rattlesnakes. Symptoms that follow include nausea, muscle aches, and diaphragm paralysis, making breathing difficult for the victim.

Like other spiders, they spin large webs where females leave hundreds of eggs in cocoons. The same webs also ensnare their food - beetles, caterpillars, mosquitoes, flies, and grasshoppers. Being comb-footed creatures, bristles on their hind legs are used to cover their prey with silk after getting caught. 

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Biology and Engineering

Silk webs and similar biological phenomena have attracted scientists for a long time. An article from the University of Pennsylvania was released entitled 'The science behind Spider-Man's superpowers.' 

Shu Yan, an engineer and materials scientist, talked about 'super' materials in the real world and how engineers find inspiration from biology to create materials with unique functions. She shared that biologists and engineers must work together.

'We're mimicking the biology; they have these interesting colors and we're mimicking butterfly wings,' referring to the creation of luminous, opal-like colors. Yan was joined by biologist Dan Janzen and biophysicist Alison Sweeney to understand the how and why of bioorganisms.

'If we can understand why they behave this way, we can design a structure or design chemistry to have similar functionality without taking hundreds of millions of years to make them, or taking laborious steps to make the same very sophisticated structures as biology does,' explained Yan. When studying the silk protein strands of spiders, they discovered that multileveled structures or hierarchy are composed of multiple proteins with different orientations and morphologies. Spiders spin their silks from seven different types of glands. 

Curiosity is Important

Moreover, the significant geometric patterns of webs enhance its strength which enables it to move around in the wind without breaking. Yan explains, 'Some researchers even argue that wind induces variations in spiderweb geometry.'

As for Spider-man's synthetic web fluid, Yan confirms that it's realistic. The comics describe Spidey's web as 'a shear-thinning liquid' which means that 'on contact with air, the long-chain polymer knits and forms an extremely tough, flexible fiber.' The engineer explains that it's similar to ketchup, usually difficult to get out of the bottle, while shaking it decreases the viscosity, making it easier to squeeze out. 

Yan concludes the Q&A session by sharing how important it is to be curious, as Peter Parker was, and scientists are as well 'a lot of science could go into a different direction, so being open-minded and being curious is critical.' 

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