Science is the poetry of Nature.

Contributing Authors


Superhero Physics

1. Superman

Superman is without a doubt the granddaddy of cinematic superheroes. Among his plethora of powers is the ability to fly. But how does he do that?

Consider Superman simply hovering above the city. According to Newton’s Second Law, there must be some upward force to balance the downward force of his weight. Expressed mathematically: F – mg = ma = 0. But what could cause that upward force?

One possibility is that he is able to emit high-velocity streams of air through the pores of his skin. As he forces the air out of his body, according to Newton’s Third Law, the expelled air must push back. And since Superman can survive in space, his lungs clearly aren’t needed for respiration—maybe they’re auxiliary air tanks.

2. Storm

A classic superhero conundrum: Where do these people get the energy to perform their superhuman feats? In the X-men movies, the “mutant” Storm is able to generate bolts of lightning at will. The energy released in a normal lightning bolt is about 500 million joules, which is equivalent to 120,000 food calories. To produce even a single lightning bolt, Storm would have to eat at least 60 times the recommended daily amount for an adult female. But we don’t see her constantly cramming down food in the movie, do we?

If her stomach has mutated into some type of nuclear-fusion reactor, however—or better yet, a matter/anti-matter reactor—she could do it. Applying relativity (E = mc2), a single gram of mass converted completely into energy would yield 90 trillion joules. That’s 18 million lightning bolts!

3. The Hulk

One of the best ways to become a superhero is to be bombarded with tremendous doses of either cosmic rays or high-energy electromagnetic radiation. Although the effect of high doses of these types of radiation on humans (in the real world) are well-documented–the typical result is severe and debilitating cell destruction, followed by death–in the superhero world, this normally lethal experience results in a sequence of fortuitous “mutations.”

These physiological changes always create abilities so astonishing that it might convince the most cautious of us to risk spending a couple days in the reaction chamber of a high-energy particle accelerator. After Bruce Banner exposes himself to a “lethal” dose of high-energy gamma rays, he transcends the expected symptoms of high-intensity radiation exposure and turns into the giant, green, astonishingly strong-antihero we know and love.

4. Batman

We all know that Batman has no superpowers. He’s just a highly motivated and highly skilled crime fighter with a lot of tech support. Or is he?

In fact, to survive intact some of the impacts he undergoes, Batman actually might require super strength. A classic movie-physics blunder is the sudden stop. Now, we see this in a variety of forms in the original Batman. At one point, he plunges from the top of a building, along with Kim Basinger, to what appears to be certain death. Their fall, however, is arrested by a (decidedly inflexible) rope before hitting the ground. The thing is, it doesn’t matter if you hit the ground or not. If the time it takes for the rope to bring you to a stop is the same as if you hit the ground, then the force exerted on you will be the same in each case. In this example:

Frope - mg = ma

If a (acceleration) is large, so is F(rope). Ouch.

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    i just love superman’s hypothesis XD
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    Thank you Dr. Sheldon Cooper.
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