Neil deGrasse Tyson Talks Super Heroes

It’s not only internet geeks who debate the powers of super heroes. Super heroes are so popular right now that even scientific geniuses like Neil deGrasse Tyson are analyzing how realistic (or unrealistic) comic book heroes are. After a discussion with James Kakalios, author of “The Physics of Super-Heroes”, this is what Tyson came up with.

Batman is probably the most realistic super hero, except for one thing. The number of times he’s been knocked unconscious over the years would have left him seriously brain damaged by now.

Another billionaire super hero, Iron Man, has powers based on real science, such as jet packs, lasers and exo-skeletal armor. However, according to Tyson, he finds Iron Man’s power source ludicrous. He says, “The energy source he is drawing from, to concentrate that much energy in one place, he would basically vaporize everything he was touching. You can’t concentrate that much energy. Anything you’ve ever used that has a lot of energy going on with it, gets very hot, very quickly. That’s what energy does. If you fire a gun enough times, the gun gets very hot. It can even get too hot to touch.”

The two most unrealistic heroes, he says, are the Hulk and Superman. Regarding the Hulk, he says, “He increases mass and decreases mass. Where does that come from? If you want to do that, you’re converting energy into mass and back again. He’d explode wherever he was and destroy the city.” He points out one way that the Hulk could get bigger. “You can’t just get bigger, unless he has the same mass, and if he is, then he’s less dense in the state of the Hulk then he is as Bruce Banner.”  The problem with that is, “He’d be like a marshmallow, or like a beach ball.”

About superman, he and Kakalios point out that the man of steel breaks almost every law of physics. They name numerous inaccuracies, but the main one they point out is the source of his power, AKA yellow sun energy. Tyson says, “We know exactly how much energy his skin can absorb and it can’t be any more than the light hitting him. And most of the sun’s light is not hitting him. It’s hitting the ground.” He adds, “I assure you, Superman needs many more solar panels than what his skin clad in costume could bring him, given the powers he exhibits.”

He also takes on the Flash, indicating that his acceleration and deceleration is not possible. He could not accelerate faster than gravity allows. He would also have to have a better heat shield “or he’d burn up.”

He says that the “stretchy guys” (meaning Plastic Man, Mr. Fantastic and Elongated Man) are “just weird”. Although the concept of stretchable skin is within science, stretchable bones are not. He also says that these guys would have to be lacking any internal organs. Further, they would lose physical strength as they stretched.

About Spider-Man, he says that it’s not impossible to genetically alter a human to produce silk strands as a spider does, but humans are too heavy to be supported by such thin strands. He adds that the webs would have to come from a different body part than the hands, but as he says, “That would make it a very different movie!

Regarding Daredevil, in order for him to have the type of super hearing he displays, his ears would have to be much larger than normal.

He also analyses invisible characters like the Invisible Woman. If you were invisible, you would be blind. Sight is dependent on properly focused light hitting the retinas of the human eye. If you were to become invisible, you’d need to have light move around you and then continue on to the eye of any nearby people; or otherwise, you’d need to have the light photons pass through you without interacting with the matter your body is composed of. If the photons are going around you, you wouldn’t have any entering your retina. If the photons went through your body without interacting, they would not interact with the retina. Either way, you would not be able to see. It would be like living in a pitch black room with no light source.  

Tyson says that Unbreakable is the most realistic super hero movie he’s ever seen.