Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Most Scientifically Accurate Superhero, the Science of Superman, and More

Monday, 03 August 2015 - 2:39PM
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Monday, 03 August 2015 - 2:39PM
Neil deGrasse Tyson on the Most Scientifically Accurate Superhero, the Science of Superman, and More
Neil deGrasse Tyson admits that he's not a comics expert, but he certainly isn't a stranger to the world of superheroes either. He himself exists as a "character" in the DC universe, where in Action Comics #14 he is credited with discovering Superman's home planet. And if you didn't notice his voice from the first Batman v Superman trailer, he'll also be featured in the upcoming film, citing Superman as the answer to that great question: are we alone in the universe?

Now, in the latest Cosmic Queries episode of Star Talk, Tyson decided to do what every group of comics nerds do in their spare time and talk a little about the physics of superheroes. First, he chose the most scientifically accurate superhero, as well as the least accurate:

Opening quote
"I think the most reachable superhero that's out there is Batman. Because he uses real devices in his utility belt and there's nothing there that you say 'oh that can't happen' or 'you couldn't' have done that.' Yeah, so he's got some special materials, but that's OK because his company makes really - he's a billionaire, and he's got stuff that you don't have. So for me, he's the most realistic superhero. And Robin as well. He's just an acrobat in tights."

"He's more real than Iron Man because the energy source that Iron Man is drawing from to concentrate that much energy in one place - you'd basically vaporize everything in this country. So, you can't concentrate energy. Anything that you've ever used that has a lot of energy going on with it gets very hot very quickly. That's what energy does. If you fire a gun enough times the gun gets warm. It can even get too hot to touch [...] The concentration of energy is not real."
Closing quote


But just in case you thought Tyson was biased towards DC, Neil also made a comment about Iron Man being able to "wipe the floor" with Batman, even though Batman is more realistic. That's sure to get the Marvel vs. DC fan war brewing again!

Opening quote
"Now the least believable, I'd say the Hulk. The Hulk, come on now. First of all, gamma rays will kill you. But let's hold that detail aside for the moment. Now next it would mess with your DNA, so here he is turning green. So let's even allow that. He increases in mass and then decreases in mass, like where does that...? If you wanna do that you're converting energy into mass and back again, he would explode wherever he was, the city, whatever. You can't just get bigger. Unless he has the same mass, and then he's less dense as the Hulk than he is in the state of Bruce Banner [...] He'd be like a beach ball."
Closing quote


Tyson also discussed the weight of Thor's hammer, and it's predictably astronomical:

Opening quote
"So I'm watching the Thor movie, right? The first of the movies. And there's a scene where one of the characters describes the hammer as being forged in the ashes of a dying star. And I said yes! I can calculate this! ... That would be a neutron star which is made of dense, packed neutrons. So I said how big is Thor's hammer? So a friend of mine, who has a replica of Thor's hammer, gave it to me and I measured the size of the hammer... If we make a hammer out of neutron star matter I can calculate how much that would weigh."
Closing quote




Neil later said that a physicist and Norse god specialist with knowledge of Thor lore corrected him on this, and stated that the Mjolnir is actually no more than around 6 pounds. However, Neil also said, "I like my answer better, even if it's wrong!" I'm inclined to agree.

And finally, Tyson claimed that if Superman were to follow the laws of physics, then his "flying" ability is actually just jumping:

Opening quote
"If you're that strong, when you jump it looks like you're flying, when in fact you're just jumping. You're just leaping. He was very strong, and so you could leap these great distances - almost like he's flying."
Closing quote


Neil further stated that the original version of Superman was described as being able to "leap tall buildings in a single bound," and that this would be the more realistic iteration of the character. He also mentioned that hovering, as Superman often does, doesn't really work out with laws of physics (duh).

If you haven't checked it out yet, there's a lot more in this episode of Star Talk that you're going to want to hear, including: what Superman could do with his farts, a refutation of the misconception that human's only use 10% of their brains, the answer to whether Lois Lane could actually bear a half Kryptonian child, and even a brief, non-serious dialogue about who would win between Batman and Superman. You check it out here.
 
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