The Science of Superman’s Invulnerability
Raised from the ashes of an old, dead blog site of mine comes the new and improved Science of Fiction column. Would it then make sense for me to begin with The Phoenix, or Spawn, or some other super powered individual that has been rebirthed in some manner? Yes, it would make sense for me to do that. But that ain’t how I wanna do things here. My blog, my rules; if I wanna use the word ‘wanna’ instead of properly spelling out ‘want to’, then I’m gonna do just that! So then, “which super power do you wanna begin with?” you ask. That’s easy! I want to begin with…
“Look, up in the sky! It’s a bird!”
“No, it’s a plane!”
“Why in the Infinite Earths are you two getting so excited about birds and planes? You’re acting like you’ve never seen either of them before! Seriously… Who says, ‘look, it’s a bird!’ with as much excitement as you just exhibited?”
“Maybe an ornithologist?”
“It’s Superman!” Superman has a number of super powers: Super strength, X-Ray vision, heat vision, flight, super speed, and a number of obscure ones that didn’t quite make it into the mainstream legend (remember the amnesia kiss in Superman 2? Okay, I understand, I too tried to forget all of Superman 2). All of these powers are interesting, and worth a bit of scientific dissection; however I believe that his invulnerability is what makes him, well… Superman.
His skin is such that it can withstand punches, bullets, explosives, and most radiation; yet it is as flexible as human skin, and contains pores, glands, and areas where his hair can grow. Oh yeah… even his hair and his eyeballs are invulnerable (or you’d see Clark Kent walking around blind and without eyebrows every time he faced an exploding bomb). What might be going on here? Are his molecules so densely packed, and are the forces that bind those molecules so strong that they cannot be so easily separated, altered, or penetrated? What happens when he is damaged? Do his cells have just as hard a time healing as they do being separated? Remember, Superman gets his power from the rays of the yellow sun, and he loses his powers when exposed to kryptonite. There must be a chemical reaction going on that we don’t quite understand. We can now take the question of his invulnerability down two paths: We can either take the physics and physical approach, and try to explain his invulnerability by comparing it to known substances in the world that simulate such a power, or we can take the chemical approach, and try to find a similar reaction where by adding catalysts (such as the rays of the sun, or kryptonite) we can strengthen or weaken chemical bonds of a substance. I’d prefer to leave chemistry out of this one… we’re fighting right now, chemistry and I.
Let us instead look for a substance that is extremely durable, yet portrays properties that reflect normal, human skin (containing pigment, transfers heat, and is thin and flexible).
In my last semester at Centennial College, I studied some relatively new discoveries in biotechnology pertaining to cloning. I took a liking to Nexia’s projects involving the hybridization of silk spiders and goats. They were able to create transgenic-goat clones that had silk-making genes lodged between their milk-making genes. The result: the proteins that are required of the spider to make its silk were now present in the milk of the goat. When properly manufactured and processed, the milk could be broken down and spun into large spools of silk at a much faster rate than if one only had a spider farm.
You’re asking me, “what the eff does spider-silk have to do with Superman and his invulnerability?’ aren’t you? Getting there, getting there…
While researching spider silk I discovered that its properties are very special. When tightly woven (and I mean extremely tight), spider silk becomes ridiculously durable, while still being very flexible, thin, and lightweight. Effectively, one could make a shirt using spider silk that will be as thin as any ordinary shirt, but it can stop bullets! Sound like Superman’s skin yet? Maybe.
The army funded Nexia’s research, because they believed that if spider silk could be mass-produced, it would be an inexpensive way of making bulletproof vests for their soldiers that are light and very flexible.
We must, however, consider cell growth and regeneration. If Superman’s skin is similar to humans in that his cells that divide, grow, and die (and we should assume so much, for he has from time to time become as vulnerable as a human), then his cells are not entirely invincible. The idea that Superman ages, and heals when he is injured indicates that he does indeed have a similarly vulnerable cell structure.
Okay, so I am led to think that his cells behave the same way human cells do, and once they leave the body they are no longer subject to invulnerability. I suppose that we must look for a chemical solution to explain Superman’s power. Something in the sun’s rays supercharges his cells, making them impervious to attack, while kryptonite exposure reverses this reaction.
This is where you come in, readers! I wanna know (and maybe I already know the answer)… is there a substance out there that becomes strong and durable when ‘activated’ by another force or energy, while weakening when exposed to other forms of energy? What about magnetism? What about the effects of heat on water molecules (durable ice versus permeable water vapor)? Let’s go, all you cultured geniuses! You know you want to contribute. You know that you know the answer to this conundrum!
Well, that’s all for this episode. I look forward to hearing your input and opening the discussion to whether we can make our very own, invulnerable Superman in the real world! Tune in next time, when I explain…
 There is an interesting blog about Superman’s obscure features, such as his ability to morph his features, and his telepathy… http://comiccoverage.typepad.com/comic_coverage/superpowers-that-time-forgot/
 See http://genetics.knoji.com/nexias-spider-silk-goats-a-genetic-marvel/ for details.
 Can I just point out that human skin is subject to flaking once the cell dies, or mites eat them, or the skin callouses up? Is Superman’s skin subject to the same fate once his cells die? Can mites eat the super cells? Are his callouses ‘super-callouses’? Imagine the clogging in Superman’s sink or shower when his skin cells or hair falls down the drain!