Superman's solar-powered feats break a fundamental law of physics

Jul 31, 2014

It goes without saying that Superman can accomplish some pretty spectacular feats. But according to students, the Man of Steel actually achieves the impossible – by breaking the fundamental physics law of conservation of energy.

As Comic Con 2014 draws to a close in San Diego, University of Leicester physics students have now discovered Superman would not be able to get all the energy he needs to fly from the Sun alone, as is suggested in the DC Comics.

The MPhys students have shown that the superhero is able to use 6,560 times more energy than he would feasibly be able to absorb from the sun's rays.

They published their findings in a final year paper for the Journal of Physics Special Topics, a peer-reviewed student journal run by the University's Department of Physics and Astronomy.

According to comic lore, the Krypton-born cape wearer gets his energy from the electromagnetic radiation contained in the light from our sun – giving him various super powers here on Earth, including superhuman strength and the power of flight.

The students therefore decided to test his solar cell efficiency – the measure of how much energy output solar cells give out for each unit of energy they absorb from the Sun.

This equation is used to calculate the efficiency of regular solar cells – such as photovoltaic panels you might find on the roofs of buildings.

The efficiency is worked out by dividing the total amount of energy used – the work done - by the total energy provided by the sun over a given length of time.

The most efficient on Earth have a 44.7 per cent efficiency, according to this equation.

To work this out in the case of Superman, the students needed to calculate the total energy used by Superman during a day of solar-powered flight.

Using a rough estimate of the area of Superman's body in contact with the sun's rays, the team was able to work out that he absorbs 1096 joules per second from the Sun.

The team then needed to calculate the amount of energy Superman actually uses in flight to overcome drag forces. They found that – for an eight hour flight at an altitude of 30 km - he would use 207 billion joules of energy to overcome drag forces and stay in the air over the course of the journey.

Based on the two figures, the students calculated that Superman has a solar cell efficiency of 656,000 per cent – in other words, he used far more energy in flight than he can possibly absorb from the Sun.

According to the law of conservation of energy, energy cannot be created or destroyed within a closed system – it can only be converted. It would therefore be impossible for him to be getting all of his energy from the Sun.

The students note that he must be obtaining energy from alternate sources. Alternatively, they said it is possible that instead of immediately using all energy he obtains, he stores the energy for future use.

But even with a solar cell efficiency of 100 per cent, Superman would soon reach a depletion of energy - especially given that the paper's calculations only deal with one of his many powers, they said.

Student Jason Watson, 21, from Oxfordshire, said: "We wanted to look at how much energy Superman uses when he is flying – and how much more efficient he would need to be.

"To put it into context, a normal solar cell would need to be twice the size of a football pitch to acquire the amount of energy Superman would use during flight.

"There are other ways that he could be getting his energy. As well as , the sun emits neutrino particles. Millions of these pass through our bodies all the time. Maybe he is somehow able to use energy from the neutrinos – but we don't know how he would do this.

"As Superman is so efficient, it would be good if he could use one of his other powers – such as his ability to fire lasers from his eyes – to supply us with here on Earth."

Course tutor Dr Mervyn Roy, a lecturer in the University of Leicester's Department of Physics and Astronomy, said: "The aim of the module is for the students to learn about peer review and scientific publishing.

"The students are encouraged to be imaginative with their topics, and find ways to apply basic physics to the weird, the wonderful and the everyday."

Explore further: Intermixing molecules key to energy conversion efficiency in solar cells

More information: "The Solar Cell Efficiency of Superman" is available online: physics.le.ac.uk/journals/inde… icle/view/647/472%20

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antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Jul 31, 2014
Alternatively, they said it is possible that instead of immediately using all energy he obtains, he stores the energy for future use.

That would still mean that for each day of flight he has to do 18 years of sunbathing. Not a bad work-life balance...but would probably make for some boring comics.

But looking at superman as a photovoltaic cell is certainly a novel approach.
TheGhostofOtto1923
2.3 / 5 (3) Jul 31, 2014
Obviously the sun power is just a metaphor. Superman can create internal pressures sufficient to fuse heavier elements, giving him unlimited power from the air he breathes.

His body must be dense enough to shield bystanders from the heat and radiation, and also so he doesn't glow at night. This would make him a literal beacon of truth, justice, and the American way.

Fusion should also mean that he could exhale ungodly hellfire. Perhaps in the next movie?
KBK
1 / 5 (7) Jul 31, 2014
"It goes without saying that Superman can accomplish some pretty spectacular feats. But according to students, the Man of Steel actually achieves the impossible – by breaking the fundamental physics law of conservation of energy."

The above statement is common in the world of science. It is one of idiocy. It is one of dogma and church doctrine.

It says 'impossible' and 'laws'.

Two words which do not exist in science, but do exist in the dogmatic control of science.

It is the THEORY of conservation, and cannot be anything but the THEORY of conservation of energy. If one calls it a law they are making science immutable. Which is dogma, and dogma has no place in science. It is a religious structure term, one used to punish those in violation.

There are hundreds of cases of the violation of the theory of conservation of energy, one merely has to look around on the net.

All real scientists know that science has no laws, it has only theory, which is subject to change.
adam_russell_9615
1 / 5 (2) Jul 31, 2014
Maybe there is dark energy coming from the sun that we cant use but he can.
antialias_physorg
1 / 5 (2) Jul 31, 2014
I thought it was because this sun was yellow (as opposed to some other color on his planet of origin which didn't work for him)?

Which means the situation is even worse, as it's not even the entire spectrum that is giving him his powers (and also not neutrinos, since another sun would also send out neutrinos)
enginerd
5 / 5 (2) Jul 31, 2014
If you want to be comically correct, the silver age comics for superman claim that his powers come from the large gravity of Krypton. The claim is that he can jump to rooftops of tall buildings because his muscles are made for living on Krypton. However, this is still a problem considering he grew up on Earth and therefore his muscles won't be fairly normal for a human.
No comic book follows every theory or law of physics, it is Sci-fi after all. But they do give great examples for people to learn from and discuss. Actually if you leave out the miricale expections of powers (assume that they can control some things) comic books do get physics right sometimes.
jthomasumc
not rated yet Jul 31, 2014
The idea was that a person coming from a red sun would be completely changed into a superbeing if he lived under a yellow sun. No matter how much energy that yellow sun may have or give off or is received.
pntaylor
5 / 5 (1) Jul 31, 2014
For their final paper, they present an analysis of a comic book character, not intended for nor written by non scientific persons????? I certainly hope it was not accepted. Their entire work is fiction, because that is what it is based on.
It is amazing, to me, there is so much discussion and nit picking over a fictional work based on a fictional work.
Are you all collaborating on a script for "The Big Bang Theory"?
StrangeVisitorFromAnotherPlanet
not rated yet Jul 31, 2014
It has been said in the comics that huge wars were fought on Krypton and in the course of those wars, exo-skeletons were created to grant their wearers tremendous powers to fight these wars. Over the centuries, this technology was miniaturized until finally it could be incorporated at the cellular/molecular level in Kryptonians. Longer lives, better health, increased stamina and strength came with this technology, a technology meant to be powered by the rays of a red sun. If I had to come up with a reason why it grants Superman the powers it does, I would postulate two ideas. First, the higher frequencies of our sun are an unexpected power "gift" to the technology embedded in Superman (who, incidentally, has been referred to as the "Man Of Tomorrow" and as coming from a civilization one million years technologically advanced over ours. Secondly, quantum fluctuations or "Zero Point Energy" could also be at work inside Superman's physical structure with amplification by our sun.
TegiriNenashi
1 / 5 (1) Jul 31, 2014
...That would still mean that for each day of flight he has to do 18 years of sunbathing. Not a bad work-life balance...


18 years of sunbathing would develop a hell of melanoma. Propelled by power cancer cells?
btb101
5 / 5 (1) Jul 31, 2014
killjoys.
but can they answer this?
Superman stands and the bullets bounce off his chest, but he ducks when they throw the gun...
why?
Valentiinro
5 / 5 (1) Aug 01, 2014
killjoys.
but can they answer this?
Superman stands and the bullets bounce off his chest, but he ducks when they throw the gun...
why?

Deflecting bullets is impressive. Having a gun bounce off you looks kind of embarrassing.

The real question is why throw a gun at someone if the bullets were bouncing off.
Mike_Massen
4 / 5 (4) Aug 01, 2014
KBK made an unusual claim
There are hundreds of cases of the violation of the theory of conservation of energy, one merely has to look around on the net.
I had an electronics laboratory and I tested devices claimed to break the theory of conservation - none did. I also see lots of claims on the internet all I have seen look bunkum. Cases.NE.Claims.

1. Please list the top 3 you think are real & worthy of inspection ?

KBK continued
All real scientists know that science has no laws, it has only theory, which is subject to change.
Its possible that the word law should be re-stated as a "principle" but, as we know any criminal/civil laws are broken all the time. Yes I do not feel comfortable with the word law in Science & far prefer 'principle'.

But hey, "only theory" suggests the "theory" is not a fair representation of reality.

Theories are ahead of hypotheses & theories have a weight of evidence which is probabilistic & asymptotic.

But, please advise top 3 re 1. above ?
alfie_null
not rated yet Aug 01, 2014
A short list would be all the ways Superman's super attributes don't violate some law of physics. Sounds like a fun topic to use in teaching.
Mike_Massen
5 / 5 (2) Aug 02, 2014
@TheGhostofOtto1923
I see you have time for fluff comments but cannot or will not address straightforward questions which I have raised here:-

http://phys.org/n...fic.html

Why TheGhostofOtto1923, in respect of any tests of energy sources & especially those masked by a high output common chemical reaction, do you think a video has more credibility than a properly constructed validation report signed off by the person responsible ?

Why do you claim there are answers to all my questions in the videos when there are not, there are only tangential comments - the details of BLP measurement methods are lacking in the detail necessary to made definitive assessments of their 'technology' ?
sirchick
3 / 5 (1) Aug 02, 2014
Don't these scientists feel their wasting their education some what, could they not work on something actually useful to mankind?

Basically anything in the real world rather than comic books/movies.

I hope the student's didn't put this on their CV - who the heck would want to hire some one who wastes time on a subject that comes to no use in the practical world.

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