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Superman's secrets exposed: how does Superman get all his powers? One physicist tells all.

An ordinary-looking man named Clark Kent dashes out of sight. He rips off his glasses and outerwear to reveal the costume of his secret identity: Superman. With one spring of his legs, the superhero soars into the sky. And with unbelievable swiftness, he rockets to a distant place to save people who are screaming for help.

For more than 60 years, Superman has wowed fans through comic books, TV shows, and movies. What makes the superhero so captivating? "He is exempt from the laws of nature," says James Kakalios, a fan and a the University of Minnesota. Superman can leap tall buildings, fly, and see through objects. "None of this is possible for humans," Kakalios says.

Kakalios is so mesmerized by physics-defying superpowers that he wrote a book called The Physics of Superheroes. Read on as he explains what makes Superman so awesome.


When Superman first appeared in comic books in 1938, it was

said that he could hurdle a 20-story building. "Personally, I'm lucky to leap over a trash can," says Kakalios.

Why can't humans jump like Superman? "Your body is adapted to deal with Earth's gravity," says Kakalios. This attracting force tugs at you, keeping you close to the ground. To lift off Earth's surface, you need to exert a force that is strong enough to offset the downward pull of gravity. When you jump, you use your body to push against the ground. The greater the force of your push, the larger the net upward force and the higher you'll jump. But the human body can exert a limited amount of force. So you can only jump a short distance before gravity tugs you back down to the ground.

If you want to leap like a superhero, Kakalios suggests a visit to Earth's moon. There, the force of gravity is six times weaker than that on Earth. If you were to jump on the moon using the same amount of force that you would on Earth, you would leap six times higher than at home.

Similarly, Superman can skip over buildings on Earth because. his body is adapted for his home planet of Krypton. So when he pushes off Earth's surface, his Krypton-adapted muscles send him sky high. Kakalios believes that Krypton's gravity must be a whopping 15 times stronger than Earth's.


Besides making impossibly large leaps, Superman can also move faster than a speeding bullet. Most bullets move faster than the speed of sounds, says Kakalios.

Sound travels in waves. And how fast those waves travel is partly determined by what medium the waves are moving through--gases, liquids, or solids--and the medium's temperature. If Superman flies at the speed of sound through 20[degrees]C (68[degrees]F) air, he would be moving at a rate of 342 meters (1,122 feet) per second.

If Superman were in such a hurry, you'd see him zip past you before you would hear him fly by. And when you finally do hear him, what a racket you would hear! Why? When any object flies through air, it pushes air molecules aside. These parting air molecules create pressure waves, which are sound waves, around the object But when Superman flies faster than the speed of sound, the air molecules can't move out of his way fast enough. The pressure waves pile up in front of him, forming a high-energy shock wave. ff you were to spot Superman dashing by, just wait The shock wave would follow. It travels at the speed of sound to your ear, which detects it as a loud noise called a sonic boom (see diagram, p. 9).

Kakalios noticed a few sonic booms in the recent blockbuster Superman Returns. "But most of the time, the movie neglected to put it in," he says. It's probably better that way. If not, a large chunk of the movie would feature "booms" and scenes of people plugging their ears.


Although Superman was born with superpowers, his skills weren't fully developed at birth. For example, on the television show Smallville, the teenage Clark Kent suffered through headaches while learning how to use his X-ray vision.

X-rays are part of the electromagnetic spectrum (see diagram, above). This range of energy waves is arranged in order of wavelength (distance between the crest of two waves). The shorter the wavelength, the greater is its energy. The only part of the electromagnetic spectrum that you can see is visible light. Superman, however, can detect a wider range.

Superman's X-ray vision would make him a great employee at a doctor's office. When your doctor wants to see if you have a broken bone, he or she zaps you with X-rays to make an image. X-rays have high energy, so they can easily pass through soft body parts such as your skin and muscles. That's why these soft tissues don't show up on film. But your bones are much more dense, so they absorb some of the X-rays. As a result, they appear on the film.

But even Superman has a limitation: He can see through anything except lead. "There's nothing magical about lead," says Kakalios. Lead is very dense, so it's hard for X-rays to pass through it. Since X-rays can be to the human body, doctors often use lead sheets to shield patients from unnecessary exposure. Kakalios says other dense metals, such as gold, would work just as well as lead. Because gold is so expensive, doctors don't use it for blocking X-rays.

As to why Superman's X-ray vision can pierce through gold but not lead is beyond Kakalios's comprehension.


Why does Superman create a sonic boom when he flies, but most airplanes do not? As an object, such as a plane, flies under the speed of sound, it pushes through the air and creates sound waves (yellow to red lines on diagram). These waves travel to your ears at the speed of sound. But when Superman travels faster than the speed of sound, he moves more quickly than the sound waves he creates. These waves pile up and eventually reach your ear, crashing as a loud BANG!


Seven major types of energy waves are categorized on the electromagnetic spectrum (below). They are arranged in order of wavelength, or distance between the crests of two waves. Visible light, which is com-posed of colors from red to violet, is the only energy wave that you can see. Superman's eyes, however, can make use of a wider range of energy waves, He can use X-rays to see through objects. Smallville's teenage Clark Kent (right) learns how to use infrared waves to melt objects.


Roger Stem is one of the most popular writers of Superman publications. He wrote Superman comic books Worn 1987 through 1997. He has also written three Superman novels, including the best-selling The Death and Life of Superman.

Q: How did you wind up writing Superman publications?

A: I worked in radio for a few years before getting a job as an assistant editor at Marvel Comics. My earliest work duties included proofreading the pages of the comic books. I soon

became a full editor, overseeing the publication of the X-Men and Captain America books. And while I was doing all that, I started picking up freelance writing assignments. People liked my writing, so I got more assignments. In 1987, I received an offer to write Superman stories for DC Comics, and that's what I did for almost 10 years.

Q Does a person need to know a lot of science to create Superman stories?

A: You'd better have at least a basic knowledge of physics. And if I'm unsure about how something works, I ask. I've consulted with scientists, police officers, paramedics, members of the armed forces, and political scientists for some of my stories.

Q What did you study in school

A: I've always had an interest in science. So I studied a lot of math and science throughout grade school and high school. When I went to college, I first set out to study engineering. But I eventually graduated with a degree in radio and television.

Q If you were a superhero, what would be your special power?

A: A friend of mine once pointed out that if you possessed super-speed, you'd be virtually unstoppable. But the power I would most like is the ability to fly. Doesn't everyone want to fly?

Q Do you have any tips for aspiring science-fiction writers?

A: Read a lot and write a lot. Get out and experience life as much as you can, and talk to people who've experienced things you haven't or can't. Learn as much about your craft as you can.

web extra

For more on Roger Stern and science-fiction writing, visit:


If you could create a superhero, what would be his or her signature superpower? Science World invites you to use your imagination and science know-how to take on this challenge.


Students with the most creative and scientific creations will win a chance to publish their work in Science World.

ONE GRAND-PRIZE WINNER will receive a special multidisc Superman DVD set, which includes Superman Returns, as well as the four original Superman films, and more.

NINE RUNNERS-UP will receive the Superman Returns Special Edition DVD.


1. Draw your superhero on an 8 1/2" by 11" piece of paper.

2. Write a 300- to 500-word essay explaining your creation. You must address the following points:

* Who is your superhero and what is his or her signature superpower?

* How does the superpower work? Explain how it defies--or works with--earth, life, or physical science principles.

MAIL ENTRIES TO Science World, 557 Broadway, 4th Floor, New York, NY 10012-3999.

Attn: Superhero Challenge. Only one entry per person, please. Contest open to legal U.S. residents currently enrolled in grades 6 through 10. Entries must be postmarked by November 6, 2006. No e-mail entries accepted. For complete rules and guidelines, see this issue's Teacher's Edition or

PHYSICAL: Gravity and Waves

Superman's Secrets Exposed


Jump-start your lesson with these pre-reading questions:

* According to DC comics, Superman stands 6 foot 3 inches (1.9 meters) and weighs 225 pounds (102 kilograms). He is also strong, capable of leaping a tall building in a single bound. How might Superman's strength change if he's visiting Earth's moon or his home planet of Krypton? Why?

* Superman may not be the fastest superhero. He has either lost or tied speed races against Flash Gordon. Still, Superman can travel faster than a speeding bullet. How fast do you think a speeding bullet travels?


* Although Superman is a fictional character, much of today's technology uses Supermanlike powers to work. For example, like Superman's heat vision, lasers use infrared waves to sear objects. Can you think of some other real-life inventions that work by using some of the physical properties described in the article?


LANGUAGE ARTS: Tell students that they are movie or television critics for a major newspaper. Select and screen for them an episode of the TV show Smallville or a Superman film. Then have each student write a review for his or her publication. Advise students to visit this Web site to learn how to craft a movie review: /1996-97/MovieMetropolis/howto.html


* The Physics of Superheroes, by James Kakalios, Gotham Books, 2005. For more information about the book, visit:

* The Science of Superman, by Mark Wolverton, edited by Roger Stern, ibooks, 2002.


PAGE 8 Superman's Secrets Exposed

DIRECTIONS: Fill in the blanks to complete the following sentences:

1. Earth's -- is the attracting force that keeps you close to the ground. To lift off Earth's surface, you need to exert a force that is strong enough to offset the -- of the attracting force.

2. The speed of sound is partly determined by what medium the sound waves are moving through such as gases, --, or --. It's also partly determined by the medium's --.

3. When any object flies through the air, it pushes -- molecules aside. These parting molecules form -- --, which are sound waves, around the object.

4. Seven types of -- waves, including X-rays, are categorized on the -- --.

5. A wavelength describes the distance between the -- of two waves. Infrared waves have a -- wavelength than X-rays.

CHECK FOR UNDERSTANDING, TE 5 Superman's Secrets Exposed

1. gravity; downward pull

2. liquids, solids; temperature

3. air; pressure waves

4. energy; electromagnetic spectrum.

5. crests; longer
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Author:Chiang, Mona
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 9, 2006
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Next Article:It wants to suck your blood! A fearless scientist uses his body as bait to reel in bloodthirsty leeches.

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