/*scrolling menu script*/ /*End scrolling menu script*/ The Science of Superheroes: May 2010
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Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Flash's Lightning Speed

The Flash, a.k.a. Wally West (amongst many others who took up the mantle) has superhuman speed, allowing him to move at great distances in very short periods of time. His powers also grant him other abilities, such as super agility (his eye-hand coordination is astounding), and super speed-sight (allowing him to see and register what he sees at incredible velocities). He can speed-read, use kinetic force to punch really hard, rob others of their kinetic force or lend his own out, heal at super speeds, and even vibrate his molecules at the proper frequency to pass through solid matter!

So what's the deal? Are any of these powers plausible in the real world? Scientifically speaking, is there any way we could improve our own dexterity, speed of thought, or velocity in physical space? The DC universe explains that The Flash's powers (amongst other "speedsters" in their universes) come from an energy force called the Speed Force. The Speed Force can be tapped by The Flash, and used for all of his purposes, thus, he can be a normal human at one point, operating at normal speeds, and when he wishes it, he can tap into this force without any repercussions on his body.

But that's the trick, isn't it? If you want to speed up your metabolism to heal quickly, you run the risk of aging quicker (see the article on Wolverine's healing ability). If you want to find a way to pass through walls, you need to find a stable way of vibrating your molecules at just the right frequency (see the article on Shadowcat's phasing ability). As for traveling at great speeds, we must resort to Einstein's good old formula:


{Nerd Alert!}

Check out the website for a brief explanation on the formula if you need a refresher.

In this website Bill Willis explains that matter and energy are pretty much different forms of the same thing. Mass and Energy can be interchanged, so to speak. E is "energy", and it equals the same thing as mass (m) times the constant (c) that represents speed of light, squared. This formula (rearranged) also helps us to understand that as we approach the speed of light, we require more and more energy to continue propelling an object at that speed. The problem lies in the limits of the universe. Simply put, there isn't enough energy in the universe to propel any single object that has mass as fast as light.

Light travels at 299,792,458 m/second, which is the absolute limit for our universe. Nothing can travel faster than light, for light is without mass.

So, why are we going through all of this? Well, technically speaking, in order to move an object (let alone a human) at speeds even a fraction of The Flash's, we would require a constant energy source equivalent to an atom bomb to propel it. Even if we could figure out a way to contain and control such energy, we've still only scratched the surface. How do we increase our dexterity, eye-hand coordination, and mental capacity to match the speeds we propel ourselves? The neurons in our brain, whether myelinated or unmyelinated, also have limits as to how fast their impulses (called action potentials) can be transmitted. With a lot of practice we can strengthen the pathways in our brains and force them to react faster. This is how one person can play a 16 beat per measure riff on a guitar flawlessly, while another person can barely strum in time with a standard 4/4 measure. But again, there are limits as to how fast the brain can work.

In our world we can't tap into a "Speed Force", because as far as we know, there isn't one. So for now, we are limited to our four dimensions (or 13 or whatever, depending on which quantum theorist you talk to) when it comes to speed and dexterity, and aside from drugs that manipulate the brain, we are pretty much limited to rocket fuel when it comes to speed.