The physics of superheroes

5 March 2012

This lecture by Professor Alan Davies, University of Hertfordshire, aimed at exploring and explaining the scientific and non-scientific background in the powers and superpowers of some of the comics action heroes (i.e. Marvel comics and DC comics in the USA).

LSE members pose for a photo

A superhero could be defined as a “type of stock character dedicated to protecting the public”. “They require superhuman powers to be deemed superheroes'' (Wikipedia). Many of their actions appear to exhibit correct principles of physics. They are antagonised by villains who may also possess superpowers. Chronologically speaking, we could consider 3 phases: a Golden Age (1938-1956), Silver Age (1956-1970) and a Bronze Age (1970s-onwards).

Some heroes and their idiosyncratic powers were discussed. Superman is known to launch himself alongside skyscrapers via giant leaps. To do this, Superman must generate an initial velocity of 200 feet/sec. Newton's laws of motions were implemented here, and by knowing that F= m.a, the gravity on the planet Krypton must have been 17 times greater than on Earth. By using Newton's formula of gravity we could estimate Krypton's density and for Krypton's gravity to be 17 times greater than the Earth, it must have had a core of neutron star matter at its centre (no surprise here that Krypton exploded!).

Gwen Stacey, Spiderman's girlfriend dies from a fractured cervical spine as she falls (head down) from a building (The Green Goblin has orchestrated this). Spiderman acquired his powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider, but he invents and manufactures his own web. It is plausible to consider that had Gwen fallen vertically with the head up, she could have potentially survived the fall. Spiderman's web elasticity is different in quality from the web generated by spiders. Ideas of Impulse and momentum were discussed here.

Moving onto Electricity and Magnetism, arch-villains Electro and Magneto (and also Superboy) were introduced. Dillon (later Electro) was struck by lighting and consequently, obtained his powers. He can generate massive quantities of electricity, employ this electrostatic energy as lighting arcs from his fingertips and can also glide over power lines by using the electricity contained therein for propulsion. Magneto controls magnetism and manipulates metal (ferrous and non-ferrous). He also has the property of levitation, which could be explained by diamagnetism. When a magnetic field is applied to diamagnetic materials (Au, Ag, water and water-containing objects), their magnetic domains align in the opposite -repulsion- , consequently, producing a levitating phenomenon.

In Materials Science we mentioned Wonder Woman, a warrior Princess of the Amazons endowed with magical powers and bearer of the bracelets of victory. These are made of Amazonian, which has the property to deflect bullets and withstand impact force and stress.

In the Field of Molecular Physics, the climbing ability of Spiderman was presented, suggesting the analogy to gecko feet. Gecko feet have millions of microscopic hairs, encased in tiny pads. It seems that Van der Waals forces confer the adhesive properties to geckos, enabling them to walk through smooth surfaces, though geckos move slowly!

Ant Man, The Shrinking Violet and the Atom all have the ability to diminish their own sizes at will, with no resulting abnormalities in their physiology. If these heroes become smaller than subatomic particles, they would not be able to breathe oxygen, their blood pressure would increase up to 40 times, the perception of light would be different - as they would be smaller that cones and rods-, and their voice would be practically inaudible! Additionally, their sartorial requirements would have to simultaneously adapt to their changing sizes. This is not the case with Hulk, who rips off his clothes when gaining size.

Finally, Superman characteristically carries in his hands big buildings, like pizzas from the oven to the table. He adeptly moves and relocates orphanages without any disruption in the building structure. However these constructions are not designed to move around frequently and do not withstand bending and/or torsion forces. In this case, the physics isn't correct.

The 29 February at the IOP was an entertaining, stimulating and enjoyable evening, with a significantly enthusiastic participation of the attendants. The photo has Professor Peter Kalmus (left) Dr Diane Crann, our Hertfordshire Centre representative and Professor Alan Davies (right).