Thursday, April 30, 2009

Superman's Vision Powers

The notion of Superman's vision powers is, if it is possible, even more impossible scientifically than his strength or invulnerability. Eliot S. Maggin had a beautiful description of what Superman's vision was like, and the idea was more that he had a broad range of "visions" rather than that he had six or seven different vision powers. So his infrared vision versus his x-ray vision worked like your "red vision" versus your "blue vision". Your red vision doesn't interfere with your green vision and your blue vision; they overlap, beautifully. 

The human eye has three types of color receptor and one for perceiving in dim light that is not sensitive to color at all. We should imagine that Superman has a much vaster range -- 11 or 20 or 60 "colors" covering a wider chunk of the spectrum. How traveling from Krypton to Earth would make his eyes change in that way is a good question.

One of the biggest problems for Superman acquiring super vision is that human vision is already really good. Our eyes take in as much light as can pass through our pupils and processes it pretty efficiently. It has been experimentally determined that people can respond to a dim flash of light that only shines nine photons upon the human retina. Since the photon is the basic, indivisible quantum of light, Superman would be hard-pressed to turn in a better performance -- nine times better at best. Telescopes see things that people cannot, but that's because they are bigger than human eyes and let in more light. But Superman doesn't have extra-large eyes -- that would make his secret identity pretty hard to hide.

While hawks, for example, have vision with higher acuity than humans without their eyes being larger, this is because the hawk's eye is specialized for small details while sacrificing the kind of processing that helps us see "the big picture". While a hawk can see a mouse from a long way away, a hawk would probably perform very poorly driving a car in heavy traffic, missing the car approaching it from the right while being acutely aware of the license plate of the car right in front of it.

These kinds of properties are hard-wired into the architecture of the human (or hawk) eye, and it doesn't seem possible for any being or device to possess them all and switch between them. At least, not in ways that would work under the light of a yellow sun, but not under a red one.


  1. You're assuming Kryptonian eyes are the same as humans to begin with. That may not be true. There are animals that see in a spectrum we don't (ultraviolet and infrared come to mind), so maybe Kryptonians do and the yellow sun just enhanced that difference further (maybe red suns do not give the same spectrum strength as a yellow so Kryptonians adapted differently).

  2. Right, but nobody has ever said that Kryptonians had super-vision on Krypton. And Superman still has super-vision at night, so it's not just because he sees things in yellow starlight that explains the powers. If a Kryptonian eye can see x-rays from inside a closet on Earth, we're hard-pressed to explain why they couldn't see x-rays from inside a closet on Krypton.

    Also, it's still true that eyes of a given size can only collect so much light. You can't read the fine print on a book someone is holding up on the Moon if no photons from the book hit your eye.

  3. Hi, interestingly I found this website. Not quite superman web, but some kind of superman vision with explanation. There is some training for children, so they can see blindfolded. It is some kind of brain enhancement. It is called midbrain activation. check this site

  4. Hi Rikdad,

    Here are some possible ways super-vision might work.

    1) Increased density of photoreceptors; also improved photoreceptors that have more than one sensing surface.

    2) Active mode vs passive mode: Passively receiving photons does lead to certain limits; if you only have one photon to work with that's it. But Kryptonians have an active mode as well. They can project eye-scanning beams of an indeterminate nature that they can receive information from. One might even consider quantum correlations so that the sending neurons detect how the photons impact the target without it having to reflect back.

    3) Quantum and/or gravitational input enhancement, esp. the former. A non-zero probability exists for any photon to be in any position, however unlikely. If that quantum probability could be shifted to favour an increase in photon input to a Kryptonian eye, that would help with the 1 - 9 photon limit.

  5. Superman has been shown to function under the energy of a yellow sun only. I mentioned on"How Strong Is Superman?"

    that Superman may have psionic powers that act on a state of matter that we can not perceive normally, and that light is a state of matter. I also suggested he may have some passive psionic/solar tendrils that sponge in and store sunlight beyond that of his mass. Holding that as a potential answer to his great output of strength, could he not use the same psionic powers to actively affect light in a manner to see all things within the range of his psionic abilities? Aren't all images just light registered through optic receptors? This ability is easier to explain if we try to localize all of Superman's abilities to just one power: psionic abilities that affect and rely upon light and energy.