Monday, October 5, 2009

A Unified Theory of Superman's Powers

Via Qwantz, This is the name of an extremely fun new physics paper by Ben Tippett, proposing that the gamut of Superman's abilities can actually be reduced simply to one comprehensive power. Here is the abstract:

Since Time immemorial, man has sought to explain the powers of Kal- El, a.k.a. Superman. Siegel et al. Supposed that His mighty strength stems from His origin on another planet whose density and as a result, gravity, was much higher than our own. Natural selection on the planet of krypton would therefore endow Kal El with more efficient muscles and higher bone density; explaining, to first order, Superman's extraordinary powers. Though concise, this theory has proved inaccurate. It is now clear that Superman is actually flying rather than just jumping really high; and His freeze-breath, x-ray vision, and heat vision also have no account in Seigel's theory.

In this paper we propose a new unified theory for the source of Superman's powers; that is to say, all of Superman's extraordinary powers are manifestation of one supernatural ability, rather than a host. It is our opinion that all of Superman's recognized powers can be unified if His power is the ability to manipulate, from atomic to kilometer length scales, the inertia of His own and any matter with which He is in contact.

All the major hits are there: super strength, super speed, super senses, x-ray vision, freeze breath, heat vision, and even his ability to disguise himself as Clark Kent.

I wonder about two things. One is whether there is any way to incorporate his weakness of not being able to use super sight on lead into the theory, or whether that (as I suspect is the case) is just an arbitrary limitation of his power? The other thing is if I accept this unified theory, are there any other other powers that Superman should have at his disposal that we do not see him using all that much? For instance, it's been a while since physics, but Magneto's ability to manipulate magnetic fields should probably also allow him to induce or at least fiddle with electrical currents, right? But I feel like that's not something we see him do all that much. Are there analogous powers for Superman that are consistent with the unifying theory?

If you're interested about the physics of superheroes, you should definitely read (if you haven't already), the wonderful book by Professor James Kakalios, aptly titled The Physics of Superheroes. It's been years for me--I think I might reread!


Erik said...

This is great. It even provides a mechanism for how Superman 'flies faster.' I would have liked to see an explanation for how this power allows him to survive in space (the near vacuum may not be a problem, but how does he get around the lack of oxygen?)

My only real complaint is with their section on heat vision. If their conjecture is correct, using atoms that bounce only off his eyes would be a very inefficient way to heat an object, even if for some reason he couldn't touch it.

Larry Lennhoff said...

I find the capitalization of the pronouns "His strength" etc. really disturbing(*). Other than that it seems like amusing handwaving.

(*) Not saying it shouldn't be done, just adds an element of creepiness to the imaginary universe in which this paper was written.

David Johnston said...

The thought has occurred to me that really any material of at least equal density ought to stop his vision at least as well. Lead is just cheaper than most of 'em, but if Superman fights some gold-obsessed villain named something like "Midas" or "El Dorado" who insists on plating everything in that precious metal his vision will be noticeably impaired.

dspitzle said...

Personally, I just love the hair in the illustrations.

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