Student Physicists Accuse Superhero Flash of Potential Negligent Homicide
An assessment by physics students of the Flash in a scene from his new tv show concludes that snatching someone at superspeed to prevent an accident would cause more injuries than just letting him get hit by the car.
Every year, the University of Leicester requires its 4th year Physics and Astronomy students to submit a brief paper to its undergraduate journal of Physics Special Topics. The paper is used as part of the assessment process for its Masters of Physics degree. The topics chosen by the students are often quirky and fun yet also allows them to strut their stuff mathematically.
The paper that’s caught the science news-sites fancy this year is called “The Flash: Hero or Villain?” In it, they take a scene from a new show on TV of the superhero Flash snatching a biker out of the air after his bike was hit by a taxi but before he could come crashing down onto the still-moving car. Based on the known dimensions of the identifiable make of car, the likely speed limit, and other reasonable assumptions, the students calculate the forces that would be generated upon impact of the car and of Flash. They determine that since the Flash was, among other things, traveling over 83 meters per second, the biker would have been better off being hit by the car. They also offered some helpful suggestions for our alacritous superhero:
It has been shown that in the scenario depicted in the trailer that The Flash’s intended heroic act results in more villainous consequences by injuring the cyclist more than the taxi would have. The Flash’s efforts will be serving the greater good if he lowers the speed at which he makes contact. Alternatively, increasing the area over which he makes contact with the cyclist would also lower the pressure and likelihood of injury.
The specific type of superhero feat that these students dissect just happens to be one of the most common and irksome to me. It all has to do with structural integrity ultimately. The human body just can’t take the type of acceleration that the Flash would be imparting to them. This is equivalent to probably the most iconic superhero performing his most iconic life-saving act: Superman catching someone who is falling from a building. This makes me cringe every time it, or something similar, happens. What kills people when they fall a great distance is not of course the fall itself (unless there’s a heart attack en route), it’s the sudden stop. This deceleration stops the body pretty fast (duh) but all the extra-squishy stuff inside the body keeps moving a little longer. The end result, among other nasty things, is having all your internal organs all ripped apart. What’s the difference then if superman is floating there and catches you. This is in fact worse since instead of the nice big pavement decelerating all of you at once (roughly), you now are landing on the equivalent of two outstretched steel bars. I’d love to see a scene where the person hits superman’s arms, slicing him into 3 chunks that then continue falling (time to fly real fast around the earth a bunch of times, Clark). Even worse, I’ve seen superman flying up towards the falling body only to catch it without a pause and continue flying upwards. This is far worse for obvious reasons.
This casual attitude towards structural integrity also applies to many other things than the human body. Ground vehicles and planes are the most abused. For most of these, the outer shell is not a structural component but merely there to look pretty, protect the occupants from the weather, and perhaps to make the coefficient of drag reasonable. Picking a car up by the bumper then would result in it simply being torn off. Oh…here’s a good one. I remember the Hulk from one of his earliest movies, picking up a god-damn tank by its gun barrel and chucking it like a frisbee. We all know what would really happen don’t we? Modern superhero movies do seem to be taking physics a little more seriously…sometimes. The best example that comes to mind made me a little giddy when I saw it. Superman was trying to rescue a plane in flight and his efforts caused the wing to realistically break off. I loved that.
This paper and my ramblings are of course all in fun and primarily (for the paper at least) designed to show the students employing the skills and knowledge they acquired while getting their degree.
Hey, if you like this kind of superhero deconstruction, check out this podcast. It’s called Logically Critical: Ode to a Superhero. It’s unfortunately defunct now but there’s wonderful backlog of episodes to listen to besides this Superhero-themed one.
In case I need to, I want to state that I enjoy most superhero movies immensely, even the ones that are especially fast and loose with the physics. However…I and many people do appreciate any special efforts taken by the creators of these superhero stories to make them as scientifically plausible and creative as possible within the confines of an inherently fantastic and outrageous premise. It just makes it more enjoyable. If there are actually some realistic scientific take-aways for an immense and often impressionable audience then hey, that’s a super-bonus.
P.S. I’m aware that in the comics, The Speed Force that Flash is tapping into has a property that allows him to temporarily transfer it to allies so they can survive his superhero ministrations.