“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.”
[Ben Tippett: A Unified theory of Superman’s Powers (PDF)]
Inertia. That would be the key to all of Superman’s powers, according to the Grand Unified Theory proposed by Ben Tippet in the style and prose of a scientific paper. The work has generated quite a buzz and we are actually a week late on this, but bear with us for some comments on what looks like one of the most promising theories for understanding this ancient enigma.
Consider, for instance, that if Superman was simply very, very strong guy, capable of lifting dozens of tons with only one arm, this would still not be a satisfactory explanation for the observed behavior in many comics, TV series and movies. A figure of Tippett’s work illustrates the problem:
To the left we see how a building suddenly lifted at one marginal point would have its structural integrity damaged and would quickly tumble. Even the ground asphalt would not stand the whole weight of the building in a small area. That’s not what we can see Superman do.
Tippett suggests that manipulating the inertia of the building, Superman would not only be able to move its center of mass, so that it would not tumble, but could also reduce its effective mass, avoiding structural collapse and damage to the ground. Simple as that.
An even more convincing evidence for the Unified Theory is illustrated in figure 2, directly from the paper:
Even if we were to assume Superman was capable of flying by some unknown means, by catching a free-falling damsel he could end up killing her. Kal El’s arms and the sidewalk can be equally dangerous if they stop the high-velocity falling mass abruptly. This is a physical conundrum often observed in many Hollywood productions.
It’s not unsolvable: we could still understand the rescue mechanism if we observed the sequence of actions illustrated above at left. Superman would catch the lady and gradually decelerate her vertical movement. That, however, is not what we observe in the movie records.
The observations are instead compatible with Tippett’s Unified Theory. By manipulating the falling damsel’s inertia, Superman could instantly cancel her falling momentum and save her without altering his flying trajectory.
Most of the other known superpowers could also be derived from this single supernatural ability, from flight itself to superspeed, supersenses, freeze-breath and heat vision, and the author presents how physical equations would work for the Kryptonian.
Of special notice is the explanation for a literally over sighted superpower: the “super disguise”. That is, the fact Kal El is not recognized as the worldwide known superhero he is by simply using glasses. “If our conjecture is sound, He could apply His power in creating a convincing disguise by making the components of His face heavier, increase or decrease the weight of His hair in places, he may even be able to shift the emission spectra of the color pigment in His irises, changing His eye color”, Tippett argues.
Though written in a somewhat formal style, Tippett’s article hasn’t been published, or as far as I know even submitted to any real scientific journal. The motivation to present the idea in this funny way came from Ryan North, from Dinosaur Comics.
The core idea here is fabulous, but all the extraordinary physical feats that come with it are not, at least in retrospect, that impressive. Inertia is a fundamental, defining property of matter, and all physical equations involving mass could be manipulated just as easily as you would be able to manipulate inertia. That so many superpowers would come from the single ability of altering inertia illustrates the interconnection of the scientific knowledge. You can alter a circle starting anywhere.
It’s interesting to realize then that many other works of fiction, such as Star Trek, which involve fantasy technologies such as “inertia dampers” could also have applications much more interesting than assuring a smooth interstellar ride. Scotty could be SuperScotty if he could just adapt and refine some inertia dampers. Batman and Ironman could be as powerful as Superman if they could manipulate inertia.
Tippett’s great work is only the latest of an old series of science fiction presented in the formal style of scientific papers. The master himself, Isaac Asimov, wrote in 1948 the spoof paper "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline". Complete with graphics, tables and bibliographic references, the paper described thiotimoline, a substance with the peculiar property of being so soluble that it dissolved before entering in contact with water.
More recently, Sean Ragan wrote a nice article published in the fictional “Journal of Zombie Science” arguing how prions, instead of commonly assumed viruses, could better explain zombies, or “Romero-Fulci disease”. The paper: Etiology of Romero-Fulci Disease: The Case for Prions (PDF).
Finally, and this is really surprising, there is an actual published scientific paper dealing with Superman’s powers! “On the plausibility of Superman’s x-ray vision”, by John B Pittenger, published in 1983 on Perception:
“Requirements that a vision system must meet to make Superman’s x-ray vision possible are stated, and two solutions are proposed. In one, emitted x-rays carry the information to Superman’s eyes; in the other, emitted rays make objects transparent to a second type of ray. Further subjects lending themselves to this type of research are superheating, the biomechanics of leaping tall buildings, or being faster than a bullet.”
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