Sunday, December 6, 2009

Flash Facts

The Scientific Method

As far back as Action #1, many of the earliest superheroes have been grounded in science fiction. This was true even more so in the Silver Age: While only three of the original Justice Society characters had super powers via science, as many as eight of the first ten Justice League members had a scientific basis to their origin.

All four DC characters who have gone by the name "The Flash" have had scientific origins, with lab accidents that serendipitously conferred super-speed being the key origin moment (the speed is also passed on to descendants). The Barry Allen Flash stories beginning in 1956 were perhaps the definitive coupling of science and superhero. Not only was his origin based in science, but his stories very often slipped real scientific facts into the text, frequently making them into plot elements. Being a scientist himself, the Flash could often analyze a scene using his knowledge, helping him craft tactics to overcome his adversaries. Even some pages between the stories were used for features of science facts pertaining to speed under the title Flash Facts.

Of course, every story was based on a combination of science fact and science fiction. After all, the origin of every science-based superhero is based on pseudoscience, not actual science. Therefore, the real science is mixed in with made-up science that helps drive the story along. This is by no means exclusive to Flash stories, but to discuss the role of pseudoscience in comic books, I'll use the Flash as the main example. Moreover, I'm simply going to refer to "the Flash" without much concern about which Flash I'm discussing, although usually, I will mean Barry Allen if it makes a difference.

The Facts about Fiction

There are two ways we can get a "fact" about a comic book character:

Declaration The writer or a reliable character in the story can make a direct assertion. For example, a numerical expression of speed or strength.

Induction The action can show a feat, and from that we can conclude that the character is capable of the feat. For example, if we see a character run from Los Angeles to New York, and something in the story tells us how much time the run takes, we could apply simple mathematics to calculate the speed. (This provides what is known as a "lower limit". It means that the character is capable of at least that feat, but doesn't tell us how much more the character is capable of. For example, when Superman lifts a truck, it doesn't mean that he can't lift two trucks.)

Reductio Ad Absurdam

The non-reality of Flash stories would seem to be so obvious as to go without saying, and therefore to be accepted by all readers without need for further explanation or apology. And yet, reader response has always contained an element of unease. Letter columns as far back as 1960 show readers writing in to question whether or not some event in the story were actually plausible. It's noteworthy that the letters printed by DC often bear the names of fans who later went on to become writers, and one of the most critical letters printed in 1971 was sent by Marty Pasko, who was writing for DC a few years later. Pasko railed bitterly about the physics (and plotting) in Flash stories by Robert Kanigher.

There are three kinds of contradiction:

External Inconsistency An event in the story contradicts real-world logic or physics and provides no explanation to bridge the gap.

Internal Inconsistency Writers simply disagree on some particular point, and there is no convergence on an agreed-upon position. For example, Flash #106 describes Barry Allen as "endowed with enormous strength by his ability to move at super-speed". Many years later, JLA #152 made the diametrically opposite claim that the Flash was "not much stronger than an ordinary man".

Retcon The way something is explained changes, with one writer contradicting earlier versions, and writers after that point backing up that account. For example, Flash #117 states that the Flash has a "friction-proof uniform" not too long before Flash #128 introduced the apparently-contradictory notion that he has an aura that protects him against friction. The aura has become accepted by all writers since then.

Retcons are a necessary evolution in serial stories, but what about the two forms of inconsistency? They bother some vocal fans, but are they really a problem? In response to fan letters identifying scientific External Inconsistencies in earlier issues, the editor responded to one with a comment in Flash #120 which I paraphrase (removing context-specific puns) "While some events in the story may not be scientifically sound, we allow them because they make for a better story!"

The entire premise of the Flash depends upon External Inconsistencies -- the notion of a man who can run at or beyond the speed of light is inherently in conflict with real physics. So there's good reason -- tentatively -- to agree with the editors and allow External Inconsistencies.

Internal Inconsistencies seem like more of a valid complaint. But they can be subtle. Many Internal Inconsistencies arise when information had by means of Declaration conflicts with other information that comes from Induction. In other words, the story shows something on the surface, but when someone "takes it seriously", they find a contradiction. This is not always a conflict between two different writers -- it can take place in the same panel. For example, in JLA #152, just as the claim is made that the Flash is not much stronger than an ordinary man, he and Batman, falling from a toppling building, have a brief exchange of dialogue as they fall, and when the exchange ends, Flash flings Batman upward to a safe location. If you reason through the amount of time that the discussion must take, then this feat is seen to be far beyond that of an ordinary man. In one second, the Flash and Batman would have fallen about 16 feet. To throw a man of Batman's weight upward 16 feet is far beyond ordinary strength, particularly when the thrower is airborne, and must therefore throw twice as hard! 16 feet is double the world's high jump record, which involves a person springing off the ground to hurl himself upwards. To accomplish the same feat with one arm while airborne is in the realm of super strength. But the writer didn't see it that way. If you don't work out the physics, it may not seem like the feat contradicts the narration.

The subtlety here comes from the fact that the Internal Inconsistency is seen only through Induction. The writer contradicted himself, but only the application of physics makes the contradiction obvious. So let's conjecture that the following summary covers the set of fair reader reactions:

- Retcons are acceptable.
- External Inconsistency is acceptable, and in fact necessary.
- Internal Inconsistency is acceptable if it requires Induction to reveal it.
- Internal Inconsistency on an Explicit level really is a problem, and is worthy of complaint.

However, I will argue that the right way to look at Internal Inconsistency depends on the writer.

Two Wrongs Make a Write

From 1971 to 1985, The Flash was written by Cary Bates, who also wrote shorter stints on the high-profile titles starring Superman and the Justice League. Like most of the writers who wrote the Flash before and since, he incorporated science -- and pseudoscience -- into his stories. A villain would put the Flash into a deadly situation, seemingly taking into account the Flash's super-speed, neutralizing it somehow. But then, the Flash would think up some ingenious way to use his powers that would circumvent the villain's plan. And once the Flash escapes from a trap, it takes little more for him to win the fight that follows.

For example, in Flash #259, when Black Hand (now starring in Blackest Night) figures out a way to rob the Flash of the aura that protects him from friction, the Flash maneuvers their fight into a vacuum chamber. Without air, there is no air resistance, and thus the Flash can use his speed without hesitation. He holds his breath long enough to win the fight. Clever! This is real science.

At about the same time, the Flash faces four deadly threats in Bates-written stories. He gets out of those fixes as follows:

a) The Flash is seemingly killed by a deadly blast. But then he simply recovers by reordering his molecules, because total control over all of his molecules is one of this powers. (Flash #251)

b) The Flash is beaten and warped into an unrecognizable puddle. That blob is still sentient and manages to form a lightning-shaped symbol that communicates to Iris to use an electric shock to revive him. The blob reforms as a healthy Barry Allen. (Flash #253)

c) When a foe escapes by flying, the Flash runs on light beams in the air to ascend to knock the villain out. (Flash #255)

d) Stripped of his aura by Black Hand, the Flash is seared by heat while running. With total control over all of his molecules, he makes his entire body compress into the compartment on his ring that normally contains his costume. The ring shields him from heat, and when the problem has subsided, he emerges from the ring to achieve his normal size and shape. (Flash #259)

All of these are examples of pseudoscience. External Inconsistency, to be sure -- none of those things are possible in the real world. But are they also Internal Inconsistency? The Flash is not traditionally accorded with powers like shape-shifting, invulnerability, flight, and size control. In fact, in Flash #258, the Flash is trapped by Black Hand in a situation where the ability to run on photons would have allowed him to escape. Later in Bates's run, Barry's face is pummeled and disfigured. What would that matter if he had "total control" over all of his molecules? If he can return himself from a bloblike shape and near-death, putting his face back together should be no problem.

Does the inconsistency here require Induction, or is it really explicit? To be sure, it requires a bit of reasoning to see the inconsistency (eg, to know that in any daytime scene, there are photons that the Flash can run on... if he can run on photons). But I hold Mr. Bates responsible here, because of another form of inconsistency -- he sets ground rules that expect the reader to think tactically about the laws of nature. For example, with the scene where a vacuum gets the Flash out of his predicament. In another scene in this time frame, Bates has some narration where he asks the reader explicitly "how many of you figured out?" If he wants the reader to figure things out -- if he asks the reader to figure things out -- then he has to play by the rules where figuring things out is possible. Giving the Flash an ability that is contradicted by other issues in the same few months means that figuring things out is completely out of play. The problem here is not inconsistency with physics, or even with the story, but inconsistency with his own rules.

A reader does not just process the words in a story for the same of having recited them aloud (or in their internal "voice"). Readers interact with stories, experience emotion as appropriate, try to guess what's coming. The writer plays a role in letting the reader know what sort of expectations to have. Bates wrote real physics into some of his stories. He asked readers to anticipate the Flash's clever escapes. But he didn't write the physics up to those standards.

In contrast, the early Flash stories of the Golden Age, starring Jay Garrick, built up no such expectations. In the Forties, the Flash ran rings around his opponents, but the stories had almost no science in them at all. He simply moves fast. His speed is never offered with any consistency: On the first page of Flash Comics #1, he is said to move faster than light, but in All Star Comics #4, he takes three and a half minutes to run from New York to Maryland -- less than 0.006% the speed of light. In the same issue of All Star, he leaves Maryland headed for Toledo and arrives, apparently, simultaneously with the Sandman, who was arriving by car from El Paso. Simply put, the Internal Inconsistency requires a minimum of Induction that the stories of that time (by Gardner Fox) were not making part of their ground rules. By holding his readers to a higher standard, Bates must hold himself to a higher standard, or he's asking them to engage with his stories on a level they do not deserve. This reads like an Encyclopedia Brown story where a made-up rule of physics is the answer to the mystery.

Consider a third writer's work. Early in the Silver Age, a Flash story in Showcase #13 was chock-full of science facts. Mr. Element's modus operandi of using elements in his crimes was really a vehicle for writer John Broome to show off science facts about the elements. In that story, the Flash is ejected from the Earth on a path in outer space. While in space, the Flash uses his vibrations to set himself on a path that bends his path around the Moon, whose gravity returns him to Earth moments later. This suffers from a bad case of External Inconsistency -- Newton's Laws dictate that a "closed system" cannot change its path in space (i.e., the Flash is not ejecting any fluid to produce thrust). Moreover, if he were moving fast enough to reach the Moon in less than a minute, his velocity would be much too high for the Moon's meager gravity to bend his path back towards Earth. In my view, however, the science of the story is much more basic than the level on which the story is inconsistent. The science facts (e.g., magnesium creates a bright flare; glass is made of silicon) are trivia-like, whereas the Induction necessary to see the inconsistency in the story is deeper than that. Broome doesn't really break his own rules because he's not asking the reader to understand the sort of physics that prove his story wrong.

To delineate the rules that writers should follow, it's worth understanding the physics of the Flash's feats for the simple reason that there are a number of weighty inconsistencies right at the forefront of the very notion of the Flash. These inconsistencies are not to be overturned -- they must be nourished! The fundamental nature of the Flash depends on them, so writers should steer clear of any story elements that "use" this sort of physics, because that turns the forgivable External Inconsistency into a verboten Internal Inconsistency.

Fast But Not Strong: By and large, we understand the Flash to be very fast, but not very strong. He can't pick heavy things up. He is in many ways like Superman if you subtract all of the powers except speed. This premise is an External Inconsistency, because it is not possible to be super-fast and not be super-strong as well as relatively invulnerable. This may seem counterintuitive since it is, after all, for a person or animal to be relatively fast without being relatively strong. A hare can run 45 miles an hour while weighing under 14 pounds. This animal is clearly much faster than any person while being much weaker physically than almost all people. So why does super-speed imply super-strength?

It's key to observe that a hare's speed owes a lot to its low weight. To accelerate to that speed, the hare performs as much work as a person who weighs 180 lbs would to accelerate to 12.5 miles an hour (which is a run, but not a sprint). If a hare had to carry a human with it, it probably could not take a single step, and would likely die from the weight being placed on it.

But the Flash weighs the same as a normal man. If the Flash can run across the United States in less than a second, then he's generating a huge amount of kinetic energy -- enough to send ten Saturn V rockets to the Moon!

If he were truly capable of super-speed, he could lift a truck simply by using his fingers to bop tiny rubber balls off of its underside at speeds approaching that of light. And obviously, if he could do that, he could just eliminate the rubber balls as an intermediary and hold his hands level to lift it like a weight. Accelerating hands to near-light speeds is super-strength. An object cannot be thrown fast but not hard. Kinetic energy is kinetic energy.

The idea that speed does not go hand-in-hand with strength is true in principle. If we consider world's best sprinter Usain Bolt and an NFL offensive lineman, we have an example where the lineman is stronger while Bolt is faster. But consider that the difference is relatively moderate. Bolt is perhaps twice as fast as the lineman. But he weighs about 2/3 as much as the lineman -- if his legs had to push a lineman's weight, he would be slower than a mediocre high school sprinter. But the Flash is millions of times faster than an ordinary man. In accelerating his weight to near-lightspeed, he shows that he's not just the fastest man alive -- he would be, in our world, also easily the strongest.

No Harm, No Foul: Likewise, a super-speedster must be relatively invulnerable. In the past, villains have drawn guns on the Flash, threatening him with gunshots. He has been knocked unconscious with a blow to the head. But running across the United States in less than a second means that every bit of his body must endure far more acceleration than the tip of a bullet would create. When a bullet moving 1500 mph hits a person, it does the harm that it does because the person's body cannot decelerate the bullet to a halt without the tissue experiencing gross trauma. If the bullet could be stopped within, say, a half inch, the bullet would just poke the person and bounce out. For a bullet to stop that fast, the person's skin at the point of contact would have to endure an acceleration of about 3 million Gs. Make no mistake -- that's a lot! But for a person to run across the United States in one second, beginning from a stop, would involve at least 10 million Gs. That would mean that his entire body -- the place where you might imagine a bullet hitting, as well as his eyes, his teeth, his internal organs, and every other location on his skin -- would endure three times the bullet-stopping force. In fact, his feet would be enduring much higher impact than that.

The Flash Doesn't Fly: The point has often been made that the Flash cannot fly -- Geoff Johns recently reasserted it in Green Lantern #44. Despite this, he has landed on Earth while returning from outer space. He survives long falls by paddling his feet and making a cushion of air. In Flash #105, he makes a tube fly airborne by using his feet to create great pressure at its bottom. These are, of course, a sort of flight, and if thrust can be created to cushion a fall, it can naturally be used also to create flight. But in fact, the Flash should actually have to try very hard to prevent flight. Running on the surface of the Earth, he would become airborne once he exceeded orbital velocity -- about 5 miles per second. If he runs across the United States in less than ten minutes, then he must exceed that rate, and of course, he is often depicted as moving much faster. If he ran substantially faster than orbital velocity, he would need to be pulling some sort of trick just to stay down -- maybe by using aerodynamics to "fly down", countering the centrifugal acceleration that should be lifting him off the planet. The problem would be much worse when he crested the top of a hill -- even fast cars get a lift from this and then scrape bottom if they aren't carefully. And it's pretty hard to run thousands of miles without encountering hills.

Moreover, any sort of downward motion should basically disable Flash's super speed. Imagine he tries to run down the stairs of a building at super speed. A normal person basically "falls" with each downward step, using his feet to catch himself at the end of the step, then move forward into the next one. There's nothing one can do on stairs to "run down". One really moves forward and gravity pulls the runner down. The Flash can leap out from the top step all he wants, but he'll have to hang there until gravity pulls him down, so he should only be able to descend a flight of stairs about as fast as a normal person could fall down them. Maybe he has a trick of using the handrail to pull himself down, but otherwise, all downward motion should be at best fast, but not "super" fast.

Relativity: In 1905, Albert Einstein pulled off the masterstroke of revising the Newtonian mechanics of motion. This set of ideas, the Special Theory of Relativity, has a number of fascinating consequences. Some of them, the Lorentz Transformations, were presented in a science feature page in Barry Allen's first solo issue. The starting point for all of this includes the assumption that matter cannot possibly travel at the speed of light. Ask a simple question, get a muddled answer: Does Special Relativity apply in the DC Universe? If so, then the Flash should not be able to run faster than the speed of light. If not, then no one in the DC Universe should experience (or discuss!) Lorentz Transformations.

Jay Garrick was said to be "swifter than the speed of light itself" in the splash page of Flash Comics #1 -- his first appearance. Barry Allen is first said to exceed the speed of light in Flash #140, overshooting the mark to go seven times the speed of light. But the Lorentz Transformations have been asserted by the comics as well, including the time when Wally West took advantage of them to throw a super-strong punch in JLA v3 #3. Because the Lorentz Transformations and the ability to travel faster than light are both part of the set-up, there is Internal Inconsistency although it requires a deep understanding of relativity to see why.

In the earliest Barry Allen stories, the Flash was capable of running just short of the speed of light, as though the writers intended to respect relativity. However, note that when a person's average speed is a certain rate, the feet move much significantly faster than that as part of the stride. If the intention were to respect the speed of light, then you might have the feet moving just shy of lightspeed while the body averaged perhaps half the speed of light.

Energy: As I mentioned in my post How Strong Is Superman?, another of Einstein's formulations, the famous mass-energy equivalence equation E = mc2 indicates how much "fuel" is needed to produce the energy needed for a super feat. This applies to the Flash every bit as much as it does Superman. When Usain Bolt accelerates to his top speed, he is converting some of the food he ate into energy, turning a tiny amount of mass -- less than a ten-billionth of a gram -- in the form of chemical bonds into kinetic energy. The amount of weight lost is not measurable because it is such a tiny fraction of the man's mass, and so many other factors (like respiration) would totally overwhelm the magnitude of the mass converted to energy.

The Flash, in accelerating to, say, 10% the speed of light, would burn quite a bit more mass -- just about exactly one pound. That's noticeable, but not overwhelming. However, in accelerating to 50% the speed of light, he would burn about 6 pounds of body weight. Thanks to the Lorentz Transformations, this quantity rises steeply as the speed of light is approached, so that accelerating to 99% of lightspeed would burn about 25 pounds off the his frame. In coming to a stop, he would burn an equal amount, so that if he ran two round trips with a full start/stop at each end, he would lose close to 100 pounds!

Because the last section already explained why we may need to waive off consistency with Einsteinian physics, this point may be moot. The early part of Wally West's run as the Flash asserted his need to eat lots of food to fuel his bursts of super-speed. But 100 pounds is a lot of food to eat at a sitting.

Neurons: Imagine a person running an obstacle course (or through a house), with lots of sharp turns and the need to go over, under, or around barriers. Suppose the runner maintains an average speed of 5 miles an hour. The real feat of speed that you can't see is the wiring of the brain needed to perform the computation that keeps the runner from bashing into obstacles. The way the brain is set up, the chemical impulses that carry out the computation move at speeds about 8 times faster than Usain Bolt's top sprinting speed, or about 40 times faster than the runner meandering through the obstacle course. If the neuronal firing of a speedster did not speed up proportional to his or her body, then an awkward runner would result, one could might rev up to dangerous speeds in wide-open places, but be unable to react quickly in the event that a sudden obstacle appeared. To be specific, if the Flash were imagined as limited by the speed of light, then the true limit would be on his nervous system, and his legs would have to be quite a bit slower still (around 10% the speed of light instead of just less than 100%).

Doppler Shift: In the great Wally West story Terminal Velocity (Flash v2 #95-100), Mark Waid showed the Flash using the Doppler effect to change light from beyond the visible portions of the spectrum into wavelengths he could see. In fact, this would not be a mere option for the Flash but a requirement, with colors shifting to unnatural wavelengths whenever he ran fast, making the visible turn invisible and vice versa. If you make the Doppler effect part of the DC Universe's physics, then all speedsters must face it at all times, for good and for bad.

Bull in a China Shop: Recall the earlier discussion of how a speedster must be invulnerable to run at very high speeds. The bad news is, this also goes for everything around him, including the places on the ground where his feet plant. If a few steps are enough to accelerate the Flash to speeds much beyond that of the speed of sound, then the same steps will exert equal force on the pavement in the opposite direction. Ordinary materials like asphalt could not possibly survive or permit such a pounding (or scraping). This is in a way a more serious complaint than the need for the speedster to be invulnerable, because that only requires the speedster to be different than real people, whereas this fact means that pavement in the DC Universe has to be different than pavement in the real world! This begs for some sort of "aura" explanation, granting some invulnerability to everything around the Flash when he runs.

Some stories acknowledge the problems of sonic booms and hurricane-like winds that would follow a speedster and create aura-based solutions to the problem. In other cases (like New Frontier), the Flash is simply very careful about avoiding damage, keeping his speed below the sound barrier until he leaves populated areas.

Speed Force and Other Messes

The previous eight sections talk about physics problems with the basic premise of the Flash. The solution, I would argue has to be to preserve these inconsistencies, because the character has so much traction with his powers working the way they've always been portrayed. Nobody wants a Flash who flies all the time or suddenly has super-strength and invulnerability close to those of Superman.

The aura was the first attempt to explain one Internal Inconsistency, because one story wanted to make friction part of the science-plot. This put the inconsistency so evidently into focus that the writer needed to explain it, and the solution has stuck. I think when you look at the previous eight sections of this post, you see that explaining that one thing while leaving the others unaddressed is like correcting one spelling error on a page with a dozen.

Terminal Velocity also introduced the idea of the Speed Force, which (not a force in the strict sense used in physics) has been used to explain some of the inconsistencies. I think it (in other words, axiomatic pseudoscience in place of real science) might helpfully address some of the other inconsistencies. For example, by basing the Flash's speed on motion within an equipotential surface within a gravitational field, the problem of the Flash reaching orbital velocity, and therefore flying off the surface of the Earth, would be dealt with.

One strategy for dealing with any of these problems is -- and I mean this kindly -- to dumb the stories down with respect to physics. The Golden Age stories didn't introduce such sophistication as Bates and Waid tried to work with later. In my view, Waid generally introduced just as much physics as he wanted to deal with, whereas Bates used pseudoscience as a deus ex machina, keeping his stories scientific until he'd boxed the Flash into a corner, then introducing some utterly new manifestation of pseudoscience to resolve the story.

The Golden Age stories work by ignoring any pretense of real science. Stories with real science can work, too, if the writer is up to his or her own challenge. I believe that "When one door closes, another door opens." A great story can use science just as much or as little as the writer cares to use, but the real Golden Rule of pseudoscience is to have consistency in terms of how real the science is.


  1. Great writeup. What do you do for a living? Or, more specifically, do you work in the sciences? Either way, this is really, really impressive.

  2. Well done. I'm not a big Flash fan because I could never get over the fact that if you could move that fast, how could you really have problems with any criminal. I'd have preferred slowing him down to as fast as a car speed. But that wasn't the point of your article. It was about science and comics mixing and that was enjoyable.

    Just a thought on the running downstairs. People don't do it because they can't run faster than falling. But if you could and you could push off the underneath of a step, I think you could run down. It does require all steps to have imperfections to push off from though.

  3. Thanks, Adam. I have mixed science, research, and engineering throughout my career. I'm not a professional physicist, but I play one on the web.

  4. Good point on the stairs, Steve. I can see how that process would start, but it would require some really involved agility at the landings.

    Of course, they did slow down the Wally West Flash (and at times, Jay Garrick) to make him "more realistic", but that didn't last.

    I think there is a whole world of storytelling that is made possible by taking the speed literally, but that is another post. It's quite ridiculous that anyone without powers would ever aim a weapon at Flash and hit him, and that's a stock scene in all of the Captain Cold / Heat Wave / etc. stories. But I envision some really fascinating possibilities with the tactics of super-speed fighting that haven't been tapped yet in 70 years of Flash stories.

  5. Rikdad,

    This is off-topic, but I thought you'd be interested:

    For the #10-12 arc of Batman & Robin "expect to learn quite a bit more about the mysterious history of Bruce Wayne's family tree."


  6. I wrote a blog march 30th of 2009 in livejournal covering some of the same ground! I had considered doing a part two since there was so much more I could have rambled on about.

    I don't think the consideration of muscle or strength is really necessary since Flash would gain mass as he approached the speed of light - negating what extra power the strength provided. It must simply be a function of his power rather than justified by any requisite strength.

  7. thisisgone -- thanks for the link. We definitely covered some of the same ground.

    But I would like to address the Lorentz Transformations quantitatively, since you point to those as a possible explanation for his apparent strength. There is a catch (which I devoted some space to in a section that I deleted from this post) that "super speed" begins at speeds far, FAR below that of the speed of light. Here's the blunt fact: the speed of light is about 880,000 times the speed of sound. And even at 10% the speed of light, the Lorentz Transformations are still very, very slight (they would increase the mass of the object by half a percent). At the speed of sound, they are almost immeasurably small. To make the mass of an object double, you must push it to 87% the speed of light.

    So at 88 thousand times the speed of sound (which is pretty darned fast -- much faster than any rocket or anything moving on the surface of the Earth), the Lorentz Transformations still count for just about nothing. If the Flash picks someone up and runs at 500 times the speed of sound, you can't pin the explanation on Relativity -- he's just barely moving at a crawl from that standpoint.

    I think anyone who hasn't done the math will tend to drastically underestimate just how much faster light is than sound. And moreover, how the Lorentz Transformations only "add up" when something is moving at a very large fraction the speed of light. To explain what's happening when the Flash is moving at slower (but still "super"!) speeds, you have to have a non-Relativistic explanation.

  8. this is the best Flash-related piece I've ever read, nice job!

  9. Thanks, Greg -- I appreciate it!

  10. Heya Rikdad!
    I'm disappointed that it has taken me this long to come back across this post...

    I defer to your point on the speed required for the Lorentz transformations to take place. It only makes sense. However, this begs the question - just how often does Flash reach these speeds? Silver and Bronze Age characterization would lead me to believe that Flash really didn't bust to much of a sweat at 87% the speed of light. I think you're absolutely right about a requisite non-Relativistic explanation at slower speeds.


  11. Hi Rikdad,

    These are my thoughts on lack of super-strength and invulnerability, or relatively so, for super-speedsters.

    Suppose that their durability is in proportion to how much super-speed they're using. If they're standing still reacting in close to human reaction time, their bodies have the same durability as an ordinary person. But their invulnerability ramps up relative to how fast they're going.

    Similarly, their strength also ramps up proportionally. But also notice that their reaction times and perceptions are much faster too. So, when going twice as fast as normal, instead of being four times as strong, they're only twice as strong since their faster reaction times cut down the period their strength is acting over.

    These don't solve all the problems but IMHO they do help make them more manageable and realistic.

  12. CK,

    I see two problems with your proposal:

    1) That means that if the Flash is standing still, a baseball thrown from his side hitting him in the ear at, say, 200 mph, could fracture his skull. But if his arms and legs propel him to a forward speed of, say, 1000 mph, the same baseball thrown by someone (Zod, say) running alongside him wouldn't hurt much. It doesn't seem like his head should get tougher because of what his legs and arms are doing.

    And per thisisgone's discussion, relativity doesn't begin to address this. Relativistic effects are nearly zero at 1000 mph. And in the example I gave, the thrower and Flash are in the same inertial frame of reference anyway.

    This is somewhat related to Supplee's Paradox.

    2) It would still allow the Flash to do things that by tradition, he has not been able to do. Eg, standing still, he could not lift a car, but by running around in a small circle, he could lift the car. Even by dancing, without going anywhere, he would acquire such strength?

    Yet, something like what you suggest is present in some of the Flash's historical feats. But the suggestion is implicit, not explicit as you made it out. The Flash does do things that imply a great source of power that isn't there when he's not "being fast".

  13. This comment has been removed by the author.

  14. Hi Rikdad,

    I am not talking about Special or General Relativity, but keeping his proportional/relative durability and strength depending on how much super-speed he's using.

    I'm suggesting the Flash's personal timeframe is the key here. I draw the distinction between merely moving fast and also having his reaction times and personal timeframe adjust to that increased speed. Whatever extra-normal force that grants him super-speed also adjusts his body variably so his body adapts to whatever speed he's using. If he's standing still, he's not using any super-speed, so he's as vulnerable and strong as any mortal man. The aura is usually invoked for this mechanism.

    A man driving a race car is certainly moving many times as fast as a normal man, but his reaction time and durability is still that of a normal man. Stick his fist out to slug someone or something, then expect him to break or pulp his fist. And an SST pilot isn't able to dodge bullets even if he is piloting a craft faster than bullets: he retains his normal human reaction times.

    If the Flash isn't merely moving super-fast but his reactions and whole body adjust to adapt to that higher speed, his durability and strength ramp up in proportion. If in his accelerated timeframe he still exerts himself in a way that would break his hand, he's still break his hand. But his relative durability and strength would be proportional to how much he's accelerated and adapted to that acceleration.

    I use the same reasoning for how Ultra Boy can punch through steel walls but be slugged by an ordinary man to get knocked out when using ultra-strength. His strength amps his durability to be proportional to what's needed to support his body's structure. But if he's acting at base level human strength, regardless of how his ultra-energy is focused, his durability is still that of an ordinary man. Act with ultra-strength at the level to lift a skyscraper, it would take a punch from someone strong enough to lift a skyscraper to have the same relative effect on him.

    I apply the same relative reasoning to the Flash's speed here.

  15. Let me try another scenario to better explain my approach on this.

    Flash can be standing completely still. His reaction time and timeframe are completely in synch with normal human reactions. Ergo, his strength and durability, not just his reflexes, are completely normal human.

    Flash is still standing completely still. But his reaction time and timeframe are now accelerated to a hundred times as fast as for us. In this case, he's not only capable of reacting from a stop a hundred times faster than we can, but he's a hundred times as strong, and however durable he needs to be to move at those speeds.

    We know the Flash can alter his perceptions and reaction time as per above. He can engage with normal humans in their timeframe. Or he can shift to a reaction time where everyone else are like statues to him. I'm just saying more than his perceptions adjust, that his very strength and durability adjust with those mental perceptions.

    That way, a Flash not actively using his speed is no more invulnerable than a mortal man so a baseball can knock him out. But when he's going fast as a bullet, said bullet would be largely ineffective on him.