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The Science Behind: Superman
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We’re all a little nerdy, right? We read comics. It’s a Code of Honor that we wear with pride (we all have a Peter Parker or a Clark Kent tucked somewhere inside).  Let’s take the nerdiness up a notch by examining the cold, hard science behind our favorite superheroes. We’ll pick a different hero to examine each time, starting with the man himself…Superman!


Superman’s Origins:

Legend has it that Superman was born on Krypton – a planet with a much stronger force of gravity than that of Earth. That’s cool…and astronomers might even be getting closer to discovering exactly where Krypton is located in a galaxy far, far away. In the meantime, let’s see just how much greater Superman’s abilities are, compared to some of the world’s top records for similar feats.


Superpower: Strength

The current Olympic weightlifting champion, nicknamed “The Iranian Hercules”, set the record at 580 pounds. (Recently, the record for a woman was set at 414 pounds.) Superman can lift between 800 and 100,000 tons, depending who you ask. That’s between 1.6 million and 200 million pounds. Suppose the average male lifts 220 lbs; Superman lifts about 10,000x that amount.  It would take a heck of a lot of eggs, spinach and other foods high in proteins and minerals to bulk up like that.


Superpower: Flight

Not only can this guy fly, but he can fly faster than a speeding bullet. So how fast is that? It depends on both the gun and the bullet. And gravity, of course. The fastest known bullet is the Winchester .223 Super Short Magnum, with a top speed recorded at 4,000 feet per second. To put this in perspective, the record of fastest human runner is set at 26.7 miles per hour. This is 37 feet per second. So the fastest a bullet moves 108x faster than the fastest human runner, and Superman runs even faster than this. That’s fast. And it’s in the air.  Probably safe to chalk this one up to fantasy and leave it at that.


Ultimate Weakness: Kryptonite

The greatest threat to Superman’s powers. Famous for its green glow and its reputation as a poisonous, radioactive element. It landed on earth in a meteorite from Superman’s hometown of Krypton, and according to Superman III (1983), it consists of: 15.08% plutonium, 18.06% tantalum, 27.71% xenon, 24.02% promethium, 10.62% dialium, 2.94% mercury and 0.57% of an unknown substance (how convenient!) A later version of the story assigns kryptonite as periodic element no. 126, with a half-life of 250,000 years. Such an element, of course, does not really exist. Some of kryptonite’s effect on its victims resemble those of sickle cell anemia (nausea, skin turning a greenish tint, change in blood chemistry). Know what else makes your skin turn green? Fake gold. The copper in jewelry causes acid in your sweat to turn into salt, leaving a compound behind that when mixed with the skin appears green.


Weakness: Double Identity

Clark Kent and Superman. Peter Parker and Spiderman. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Multiple Personality Disorder is a real clinical condition. A mysterious and controversial disorder, there are no national statistics on the exact number of individuals living in America with it. Between 1-3% of the population suffers from Multiple Personality Disorder. This is sad though, and comics make us happy. So let’s move on.

For more on the science of Superheroes, check out The Science Behind: Wolverine or The Science Behind: Spider-Man!


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