Cracking that hard shell

Credit Marvel Studios

Credit Marvel Studios

“Raise shields!”

I’m not sure there is an episode of “Star Trek” where Captain Kirk doesn’t over-dramatize those words, a man under his command doesn’t strongly suggest likewise, or Scotty doesn’t declare that getting the Enterprise’s shields up and running just is not possible.

Nearly 50 years after the debut of the iconic sci-fi series, students from the University of Leicester in England have published a paper in the student Journal of Special Physics Topics reporting they have discovered the key to building real-life deflector shields. Shields are everywhere. There’s the pizza joint, Shields Up is the second mission in the video game Borderlands 2, and the Bible tells us in Ephesians 6:16 to put on the whole armor of God: “Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.”

So let’s talk about shields.

I began pondering the subject, word origins, societal definitions, and whatnot of shields this weekend while watching the flick “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.” Something about the way Steve Rogers, aka superhero Captain America, stored his shield on his back like a turtle made me wonder about the deeper meaning of the word and the action. Then, of course, there is the bigger picture with him working for the agency S.H.I.E.L.D.

Let me say a couple of things before I go further: First, I realize the movie is (ultimately) a work of fiction; second, and most important to some, there are SPOILERS here so stop reading if you have yet to see the film and may be interested; and third, we need to get a few definitions out of the way:

“SHIELD,” an Old English word of “prehistoric” German origin, is derived from the words “divide,” “split,” and “separate.” Those words, in turn, evolved from “scale,” “shell,” and “shelter.”1

Etymologists suspect the word “TURTLE” has French origins. But there is little else found regarding the reptile with the hard-protective shell1. At the same time, considerable symbolism surrounds the creature. For instance, for some it represents quiet strength and the possibility of refuge from an attack. According to Chinese cosmology, turtles cart the world on their backs. On the flip side, turtles to some cultures represent a lack of morality as they are thought to reproduce only by mating with snakes.2 This latter part is particularly curious considering the word’s possible evolution from “scale” to “shield.”

Turtle from the Belle Isle Nature Zoo in Detroit. Credit Leslie Green

Turtle from the Belle Isle Nature Zoo in Detroit. Credit Leslie Green

Fascinating how something that protects can also divide. Captain America’s strength and shield set him apart from other men. With his shield, he not only did battle but he also kept himself from harm—from suffering irreparable damage from attacks that would kill an ordinary man—not once, but time and time again. He also works for S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), an organization that claims to protect and serve when really the “anti-terrorism” group turns out to be in bed with snakes bent on destroying all who get in their way.

Consider the deflector shields theory. Overly simplified, reports, it works like this: “Essentially, if you can wall yourself off with plasma, it can be used to deflect electromagnetic radiation, like a directed energy weapon (a laser or something similar). … However, the shield works equally well in both directions, so you can’t return fire either. In fact, since the plasma blocks all frequencies at or below the threshold dictated by its density, you probably won’t even be able to see past your own deflector shield.”

Let us look deeper. What are the implications of sealing off whole populations of people? What about one person? Would someone feel the need to test the shield? You know: If your bully big brother knows you have a bruise, isn’t it likely he will press on it to see if it still hurts? Does this sound like a snake-skin turtle to anyone else?

The more I think about this, the more questions I have, like: Who is The Enemy? Perhaps it depends on which media outlet you listen to or your definition of “treaty” (an entirely different discussion) if you are talking about the Cliven Bundy story. Too, what are the implications of failing to protect ourselves from The Enemy? What if we neglect to take up the shield of faith? What happens then? In the case of Steve Rogers, I suspect “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” would have been an awfully short film had he not jumped from the elevator without his trusty shield.


  1. Dictionary of Word Origins by John Ayto
  2. Dictionary of Symbolism: Cultural Icons & the Meanings Behind Them by Hans Biedermann, translated by James Hulbert

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