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Science of The Flash - or - I forgot what a geek I am. [Mar. 30th, 2009|04:26 pm]
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One of my favorite things about the Silver Age Flash comic books I used to read was how the story would incorporate a factual element of science into a fantastic situation to blur the lines between that which is possible and that which is impossible. Sometimes the writers would invent ridiculous pseudo-science to explain away some awkward loophole and sometimes that psuedo-science would turn out to be prophetic. Nevertheless, Flash always seemed ahead of the curve as relates to matters of science ...even for a comic book superhero. While the moment of his origin may be a stretch (a combination of unspecified chemicals and a bolt of lightning), he isn't from another planet, didn't receive a power ring from an alien, and isn't an Amazon demi-god - and given the nature of his power and it's unified functionality (as opposed to disjointed powers like flight and x-ray vision...) he is perhaps, better explained scientifically unlike most other super powered heroes. In the next few years the science of physics will be dramatically redefined through a culmination of scientific fact and what was once seemingly fantastic. This new comprehensive and verifiable understanding will have major ramifications to the universe as relates to speedsters (I might even suggest that anyone in the process of writing a script for a Flash film hold off a year or two while the Hadron Collider does it's thing - especially if they're interested in building a movie franchise). I think that unless DC Comics defines the "speedforce" (the comic book mechanism from which Flash derives his power) in the context of these forces - they might as well give him magic boots. There is no character more elemental in relation to the mechanisms of nature. One of the fantastic things about The Flash is that the anticipated upheaval of understanding really only perpetuates the unified functionality of his abilities and vindicates his iconic status as a focal point between worlds in the DC universe. While the mystery of how chemicals and a bolt of lightning enabled him to harness his power remains - even the current understanding of particle physics, quantum physics, and cosmology sheds new light on how we may perceive all of the abilities he has already displayed AND pushes the envelope on a new and more fundamental relationship of his powers to the fabric of the multiverse. While the powers of most superheroes are definitive - it is our unfolding understanding of the way things work that reveals the ultimate potential of The Flash.

To sustain the illusion of possibility in the fantastic, there are principles of science that should be taken into consideration or even further fleshed out. Adhering to some of these principles would provide a bit of continuity while entertaining the imagination as to what is possible in the world of the Flash. In this spirit, I've pondered (with my limited comprehension of physics) Flash comic book science...

A speedster doesn't need goggles. He has a protective aura to keep bugs out of his eyes.

At some point the writers of the Flash realized that the greatest nemesis of superspeed traveler would be resistance. If a motorcyclist needs protection from windburn you can bet a speedster might need more than a leather jacket to keep the friction from burning him up - and this is to say nothing of the physics of particle collision that would take place at near light speeds. Flash was given a protective aura so that he could save the day without fear of disintegrating while using his powers. One must assume that the aura acts as a sort of wedge in the path of Flash cutting through that resistance but if it also protects him from inevitable accelerated particle collision it must "reseal" the disturbance it created in the quantum foam on the back end of that wedge. The energy released from his wedge smashing through sub atomic particles might otherwise leave tiny black holes in his trail. This might suggest The Flash's aura could be a warp field he creates by folding space in front of him and expanding space behind him. I prefer the Higgs field explanation since the warp field doesn't jive with the his ability to become intangible and move through solids (unless he's made of gravitons - which can travel freely through dimensional branes/planes). A Higgs Boson field is the most likely candidate for what his aura is since higgs bosons succumb to no resistance from particles in our material universe. In fact, The Higgs Ocean is my personal favorite as a candidate for the speedforce. [check out Fabric of the Cosmos by physicist Brian Greene]

DC enjoys playing Flash head to head in speed competitions against Superman. While I'm partial to Flash, I do have to ask myself a few questions to accept the premise that there would be a chance that Superman could win. Just what is the nature of Superman's power? As an alien Supes has dense muscle tissue and endurance enough to move at superhuman speed. His super dense tissue also serves as a means of protective invulnerability. On the other hand, I've never heard of Superman possessing a protective aura that shields him from high energy particle collision nor does the origin or nature of the two heroes' powers remotely resemble one another. Invulnerability is one thing but alien skin without the benefit of superpowers that directly imposes on surrounding physics won't get you anywhere near the speed of light. As a matter of fact, Superman's run/flight would add to his mass - making it far more difficult for him to use mere muscle to compete. Let's say that both Superman and Flash attain the speed of light - aren't Superman's powers fueled by our Sun? It's my understanding that when Superman is exposed to energy radiated from a red sun, he is rendered powerless by our standards. If he is traveling faster than the radiated energy of the Sun then is he rendered powerless when traveling faster than light or perhaps he retains his powers until his body uses all the absorbed energy? Alright, enough about Superman.

Sound Barrier

If the Flash breaks the sound barrier it stands to reason that he would in fact be traveling faster than sound waves including the ones coming out of his mouth and consequently he wouldn't be able to hear anything - even himself. Everyone knows that superheroes like to talk to themselves and since time and space are relative, it's unlikely that Flash would speak at the same slow pace a normal person would if he were running near the speed of light. He would barely get anything out before he got to where he was going... In the comic book world, this might explain why Flash would be able to get a monologue out while in the midst of a situation that common sense dictates should only take a fraction of a second. Aside from actually speaking at a faster rate, one might argue that as long as the vibration of his voice is inside his protective aura that the sound waves would travel the same relative speed and therefore be audible within his "bubble" thus making it audible to him. It could be possible that when he traveled at extreme velocity and spoke - the frequencies would exit the aura at considerably higher energy than a normal human perceives sound. Sound waves that left his aura might be considerably higher in frequency and take on characteristics of other energies all together...

Problem of Doppler effect

As most any musician can tell you the frequency of a sound wave will determine it's pitch. The Doppler effect is the change in frequency of a wave that results from an object's changing position relative to an observer. If you push a musician off a cliff because he hasn't payed you rent, you're likely to hear the scream lower in pitch as he/she falls away from you, whereas if you fell with him/her - that scream would remain at the same pitch. A more dramatic example of this is the sound of a race car as it passes. Sitting in the car the hum of the engine does not change while the car travels at a static velocity. As Flash moves at super human speed, the length of sound waves will shorten in the direction he travels until he passes the source of the sound at which point the sound waves will lengthen. This would happen at such a dramatic extreme for Flash that it's likely that the sound waves he ran toward would no longer technically even be sound. His sensory perception would have to translate it to something meaningful for him to function at high speeds if he stayed within earshot to hear a particular thing at all. This perception would not simply ramp up to make sense of stuff coming at him faster - but also interpret the waves that are lengthened and pitched down by his superspeed. Flash must effectively hear things at different speeds simultaneously.


Just like sound waves, as Flash travels faster his perception of the color would shift such that violet would move all the way up the visible spectrum to red. At some point even before approaching the speed of light he'd lose all of the visible spectrum and be flying blind.
All of this "running blind and deaf" becomes a bit more impressive when you consider that Flash can't see or hear things any further away than a normal person could. It suggests that he has a broader spectrum of frequencies that he can sense and that he cognitively interprets them faster than the speed of light.

Possible answer to this dilemma?

While DC vapidly refers to his ties to the speedforce as the answer, there is a model in nature that suggests a viable pseudo-science theory. The human ear has tiny hair cells capable of detecting frequencies ranging from 20Hz - 20kHz. But to actually hear a sound isn't as simple as a 90Hz frequency vibrating the attenuated hair cell. Sounds that are under 200Hz shake the entire basilar membrane which houses all of the hair cells, thus destabilizing the stable perception of pitch. So, rather than only take direct neural transmission from the follicles the brain interprets the average "shaking" of the entire membrane. We already know that Flash has a considerable control and awareness of his body. Perhaps the natural real world example of the manner in which the brain anchors an illusion of hearing sub frequencies in the ear can serve to explain how the Flash observes the world when traveling at high speed. Whether running at superspeed, becoming intangible, or traveling extra-dimensionally, his entire body acts as a sensory perception anchor translating his interaction with the relative particles and frequencies within his scope around him. Interestingly, this need for an anchor could also serve as a potential weakness.

speed of sensory signal to brain

We've always taken for granted that the Flash is somehow able to mentally process his surroundings to control his direction relative to his surroundings. It might be hard to keep dodging cars and trees as they hurdle toward you faster than you can come to know they're there. Aside from dodging obstacles, he would also have to consciously pay attention to the curve of the Earth. It's generally not a problem trotting along at 6mph, but Flash can easily exceed the Earth's escape velocity - 7 miles per second, or nearly 25,038.72 miles per hour. At this speed his acceleration would be greater than the strength of gravity and flying wouldn't really be a problem for him. Even if he can see, hear, or sense things in some zen-like fashion, he still has the problem of his brain cell firing signal. Since single cells can't fire at a rate that much greater than 1,000 times per second Flash would still have a bit of a problem getting around. He would need a MUCH larger network of cells to have an average firing rate to handle his pace and even then he would be limited by the speed of the electrical impulses traveling along axons. He'd have to be near omniscient for this one.

Since Flash can "think fast enough" to control his velocity at light speed, it's a safe bet that any villain with psionic powers (like Gorilla Grodd) attempting to read his mind or take control of his thoughts would be incredibly overwhelmed. That would be like trying to read millions of words all printed in exactly the same spot. Grodd's powers are not centered around a quantum physics' defying physiology so while he may be a psionic super-ape, Flash's minimum required mental capacity to use and control his own power would render him invulnerable to Grodd's powers or any psionic attack.

Angle of momentum

One of the more interesting powers rendered to the Flash in recent history is the ability to "sap speed" from others. When I first heard about this power I was somewhat disappointed as it seemed to go against the grain of his unified functionality of powers I referred to above. After some consideration though, I squared up angular momentum as a means for Flash to wield this new ability - but only if the individual or object he saps speed from is between Flash and a rotating object of much greater mass (most likely earth). Imagine two satellites in parallel concentric orbits around earth. If you tied an imaginary spring from the satellite furthest from the earth to the satellite closer to the earth, the distant one would slow the velocity of the closer one allowing the gravity of earth to pull it into lower
orbit slowing it down relative to the other satellite... this would in effect pull on the distant satellite and sling shot it into higher orbit and greater velocity. In this fashion Flash would be putting the breaks on the vehicle while it catapults him forward. This idea makes the idea of Flash fighting villain The Top very interesting...

to be continued?

From: (Anonymous)
2009-03-31 12:41 am (UTC)
I really enjoyed reading your detailed thoughts on "Flash physics"!
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[User Picture]From: kellyvexed
2009-04-09 02:26 am (UTC)
got some things for you. First off:

go to this link:
Second off:

and finally, this musician I saw Andrew Bird had this awesome doppler/victrola thing, your mentioning the doppler effect reminded me.
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From: (Anonymous)
2009-04-10 07:50 pm (UTC)
thanks for dropping a line! love the pic :)

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