The Physics of Superheroes

Wait? You mean he can't really fly? Or stop bullets? Or see through walls? Image credit: Warner Bros. / capedwonder.com

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About This Episode

Super heroes are popular because we dream about having their amazing powers—super strength, flight, X-ray vision, invisibility. Although seemingly impossible, many superpowers are based on real science. Join astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in exploring whether science could let us see through walls like Superman, shoot webs like Spider-Man, disappear like the Invisible Woman, shrink like Ant-Man, stop bullets like Wonder Woman, run as fast as The Flash, or recreate Batman’s amazing technology. Physicist and author James Kakalios examines the physics of caped crusaders, while Lee Silver describes animals with abilities that could expand the limits of human biology. Meanwhile, mild-mannered Eugene Mirman wonders what it would be like to leap tall buildings in a single bound—or at least jump to the second floor.

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  • Matthew Howes

    On the note of Spider Man’s web slinging. Have you looked at the information on the Canadian Bio Genetics company named Nexia Biotechnologies that have spliced a gene for spider silk into goats?

    Apparently, the goats milk can be harvested and used to create something they call ‘Biosteel.’ Which is essentially similar to the spider’s silk, but can be made in much larger quantities.

    • Jeff

      Matthew, thanks, that is so cool. I’ve got to check it out. For anyone interested, here’s the link to the Wikipedia entry on BioSteel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BioSteel

    • J.Grym

      The point about Batman’s cape is to strike fear in the hearts of criminals and all his apparel is a form of psychological warfare.

      After saying that, I think he also used it as a wing suite when doing his high rise sky diving.

      -JG, Helsinki Finland

  • Elizabeth

    What about the Watchmen? It would be interesting to hear what Neil has to say about Dr. Manhattan.

  • Elizabeth

    Nevermind… There’s a part 2!

  • Tyler

    These podcasts always fly by so fast :*) An hour feels like 5 minutes when I’m learning while having fun. Thank you Dr. T & Jeff and everyone else who work towards providing us with excellence every week! Do you guys accept donations? I would love to help in anyway I could!

    • Jeff

      On behalf of everyone involved in StarTalk Radio, you’re welcome, Tyler, and thank you for the praise. We don’t accept donations, but if you know a corporate sponsor who wants to support us, please let us know.

  • Thanks for the show.
    This might be the most fun your fun show has yet offered.
    The end reminded me of a superhero who is very dear to me, but not well know. His name is “Captain Freedom” and he was a beloved character on early Hill Street Blues. He was not just a vigilante, he was a starry-eyed, optimistic, delusional, and inept vigilante. Like many stories in Hill Street Blues, his was tragicomic.
    On the comedy side, he and his citizen arrests were the bane of officer Mick Belker.
    On the tragic side, his hobby lasted only four episodes.
    The last Captain Freedom episode will make you cry, but damn that show had good writing:
    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x7mh1f_hill-street-blues-freedom-s-last-st_shortfilms

    What does this have to do with physics? Whatever a “neutral warp generator” is, it doesn’t stop bullets.

    • Jeff

      Dennis Dugan! I haven’t thought of Captain Freedom and Belker for years. What an amazing show Hill Street Blues was. The first “modern” cop show, in my opinion. Thanks for the memory, McLir.

  • This is a great idea. I love this conversation. Having NDT doing this type of commentary really works.

    As a lifelong comic geek, I do have many of the answers that were glossed over. I’m not going to answer all of them, but I’ll answer some.

    1) Green Lantern – “Why green?”
    The mythos behind this is mystical rather than scientific. The story goes that there are seven types of emotional energies in the universe (much like a prism separates white light). As the emotion used by the green lantern corps is will which is almost a non-emotion, it sits at the middle of the light spectrum. The mystical equivalent to this would come from the colors of the Hindu chakra system where the green chakra would be over the heart. So, green makes sense.

    2) The Flash – “Why doesn’t he burn up from heat friction?” and “Where does his speed come from?”
    Once again, this comes from a semi-mystical “speed force”, where in the comic books, it has been theorized that the speed force chooses its champion. In doing this, it will manifest itself as some kind of electrical force. As part of these powers he has a heat resistant aura that help with the air friction problem. The speed force, which is not internalized, would power the Flash to his acceleration point.

    3) Superman – “How does Superman see Lois’ underwear in the 1978 movie?”
    Technically, Superman doesn’t use the term “X-rays”. His exact line is “I have a problem seeing through lead.” It may not be that type of ray. The big question is how does he control the depth of how he sees through things. Perhaps, he can control this in the same method that we can focus on things that are very small or far away.

    That’s all I’ll answer for now.

    • Jeff

      Thanks for your answers, Christopher. I don’t know that “speed force” or Green Chakra provides any additional scientific data into the equation, but if a bunch of comic fans were sitting around in a bar, they’d probably earn you a beer.

  • Chuck Jones

    Once long ago in a Superman comic, Superman found that when he turned invisible he also went blind because light went through his eyes without stimulating the receptors.

  • Andrew A

    Also sent this as a tweet to NDT. I was wondering about his thoughts on WR-104 and the dangers its Gamma Ray Burst poses to Earth.

  • Will Power is actually a real person, a racing driver no less in the Indycar series (with 18 race wins).

  • Scott

    Batman wears a cape because the cape creates a false location of him during combat, plus makes it more difficult to “fight” in hand to hand combat, they don’t know where he is going to throw a punch from or kick. When fighting, people shoot at the cape, but he is already on the ground for example.

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