How, exactly, does Superman fly? Or does he, really?
With the release of the "Superman Returns'' movie this week, you can bet there will be plenty of discussion (at least half-serious) about the limits and scope of the Man of Steel's super powers. Rather than engage in uninformed speculation, we went to the experts -- physics scholars at Cal and Stanford.
Unfortunately, a lot of them are baffled, too.
"The flying always bothered me,'' admits Richard Muller, a professor of astrophysics at Cal and a Superman fan. "I think what he really does is leap and guide himself along the air currents. Or, if you can't really rule out flying, maybe he has a mechanism for somehow forcing air backward -- what if the pores on his skin eject microscopic amounts of excess moisture, like sweat?''
Uh, OK. The real point is that the physicists get it. They understand, as Stanford senior and physics student Andy Leifer says, "If all these movies abided by the rules of physics, it would be a lot more like real life, and it would be a lot more boring."
But that doesn't mean that they aren't thinking about it. And, despite what you may have heard, physics majors do have a sense of humor. A pretty good one, according to Ed Marti, listed as "Minister of the Interior'' on the Cal Society of Physics Students Web site. Or, as the Cal chapter sometimes calls itself, "the Uberdorks.''
"I think the physics department tends to be a little more humorous," Marti says. "A little kooky."
When asked if it is possible for Superman to have X-ray vision, this is not a group that scoffs at the idea. Well, they may scoff a little bit.
"If he is projecting light (or X-rays) from his eyes," says Andy Chen, who just got his master's in aero-astronautics at Stanford, "he needs something to reflect it back. So everywhere he goes, he'd have to have a mirror to place behind the object to reflect it back."
"And," adds Marti, "he would need to use an enormous amount of X-rays, which would kill whoever he was looking at."
Nonsense, says Professor Muller, who often makes tongue-in-cheek explanation of science fiction movies for his students. He says the problem is that we are taking the concept of "X-ray vision" too literally.
"It is just a metaphor for the ability to see through things," Muller says. "When I was a kid, I had a pair of X-ray glasses so I could see through the clothes of women. But those weren't really X-rays. What I think is that Superman is using a well-known kind of particles that come from the sun called neutrinos. We know it is possible because we have read it in comic books."
The real problem, Muller says, is that Superman's abilities have increased too much.
"It isn't a challenge," Muller says. "He used to go after bank robbers and Nazis. Now he has to have these super demons. C'mon, life is hard enough. And sometimes they get it wrong. For example, he can't travel through time. That is just wrong."
There are other problems. If, for example, Superman were to take Lois Lane in his arms and blast off "faster than a speeding bullet," Muller says, "she'd be crushed."
Also, if he is able to fly at near the speed of light there is a problem. Superman, flying off to parts unknown, doesn't age. But those of us left behind do.
"There would be a huge change," Chen says. "If he was gone two hours (flying at the speed of light), by the time he returned the world would be over."
And his date with Lois Lane would be ruined.
Leifer, who is spending the summer working at the Institute for Telecommunication Sciences in Boulder, Colo., says he heard that in the new movie, Superman throws a continent into space. This seems unlikely, Leifer postulates.
If Superman threw the continent by standing on the Earth," Leifer says, "then by the conservation of momentum he would significantly alter the Earth's orbit and may spiral the Earth into the sun."
Also spoiling his date with Lane.
Not that the physicists are entirely contemptuous.
"I was always impressed by how fast he could get dressed and undressed," Chen says.
Nor do the scientific improbabilities overcome their interest. Almost all of them said they could not rule out the idea that some kind of anti-gravity force might be discovered. And they agreed that the original Superman premise -- that he came from the planet Krypton, where the gravitational pull was so strong that he was superhumanly powerful in Earth's lower gravity -- makes sense.
Marti points to a book called "Great Mambo Chicken," which tells of a scientific experiment in which a researcher put several chickens in a centrifuge and raised them in twice-normal gravity for months at a time. When they emerged, the chickens were stronger and had larger bones and muscles, and greater endurance. In other words, they were superchickens.
So, the physicists say, it does work in the real world.
"If only," Chen sight, "we had done that to the U.S. soccer team."