Superhero Science

I love superheroes.  I love science.  I love movies.  I love putting together things I love.

I’ve given talks at public “Saturday U.” events in Wyoming on the science of science fiction movies and most recently the science of superheroes.  I thought that this week I’d share some of the highlights from the latter talk and provide some prompts to think scientifically, even about things that are not very scientific to start with.  I’m not the first science fiction writer to do this (e.g. see Larry Niven’s “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex“) or the first scientist (e.g., see The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios), but in my opinion it’s a big sandbox and there’s room for everyone to play.

Some superheroes, perhaps even most superheroes, don’t make scientific sense.  Like any fantasy or science fiction story, however, the good ones should at least be self consistent and makes sense if you accept the underlying premise (as absurd as it might be).  So sometimes I sit quietly pondering to myself things like:

If light passes through Invisible Woman’s retinas without being absorbed, why isn’t she blind when she turns invisble?

Where does the energy in the Human Torch’s flame come from?  What’s burning?

When a shrinking or growing superhero changes, do they change mass when they change volume?  Where does the mass come from/go?physics, science, Batman, Flash,

How many calories does the Flash burn when he runs?  How much would he have to eat?

Even though most of an atom is “empty space,” it is electrical forces that give solids their solidness.  How could the Vision or Kitty Pride actually phase through solid surfaces?

How can any scientist or engineer build a suit of Iron Man armor in a cave with only one assistant in a few days when in reality it would cost billions of dollars, take a team of hundreds, and take years?

Isn’t Batman’s superpower really the level of bat-crazy it takes to pal around with Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and the rest without any superpowers?

What superpowers are real?  That is, which fit into our known science or technological capability?

I have some good answers to some of these, but not all of them.  And if you think it’s silly to even be contemplating things like this, as if it’s a waste of time, consider whether or not you’d like a job at google.  Thinking about these things could be more practical than you realize.

Or at least fun!

Copyright Mike Brotherton, used by permission.
Copyright Mike Brotherton, used by permission.


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