SCIENCE: Can The Flash Fly?

So a physicist, and engineer and a paleontologist walk into a bar. The physicist asks the engineer, “Why can’t The Flash fly?” The engineer takes a deep breath; the paleontologist gets out his notebook. Yes, this scenario is real, and yes, I was the paleontologist. My attempt is to now distill the mad dialogue between said physicist, played by Ben Tippett of previous zombie article fame, and Jacob Stump, engineer and blogger extraordinaire.  The science here is real; I just don’t necessarily comprehend all of it. I will do my best.


So the question: Can The Flash fly?


First thoughts: No. The speed of The Flash moving through the air is enough to cause some wackiness to happen. Wackiness is not a scientific term, but it’s appropriate. At supersonic speeds, which we as comics fans know is nothing boy our boy, Barry (or Wally, or Jay, or Bart, or Max, ect…) the flash would be moving faster than the air’s ability to fill the space he was just in. This could create areas of super low pressure around and behind The Flash, areas with very few air molecules. With no air molecules even flapping his arms he’d be pushing against nothing. Like a swimmer in the International Space Station, it just doesn’t work. REAL LIFE EXAMPLE: Submarines can only go so fast in the water because even with a very fast propeller at a certain point the water undergoes supercavitation (air bubbles from the extreme forces created by the propeller acting against the water).

 

But what if…


As we all know The Flash’s suit protects him from the friction of air particles around him, but the particles themselves are experiencing friction with each other. Friction creates heat. When fluids warm their properties change. Most fluids get more viscous, hot syrup pours more quickly than cold syrup. AIR IS THE OPPOSITE! So if The Flash experienced drag from the air he’d experience more drag as the air around him was heated from him running through it an pushing it out of the way. At the speeds The Flash moves the air could be thought as tar-like. Problem is you can push against tar well enough, but if you think about a running motion your arms and legs are moving back and forth, meaning you don’t really get a net gain of force against the air in either direction. (BIO NOTE: Birds deal with this problem by pulling their wings into their bodies on the upstroke and shooting them straight up to get the maximum benefit from the downstroke, like a swimmer putting their arms above the water when moving them forward then putting them back in the water to get the thrust.) So this scenario wouldn’t be ideal for flying.


But what if…


He kicked against the air really hard? Hard is sort of the wrong word to use, because at this point The Flash’s speed determines his force so could he kick against the air fast enough to propel through it? If he was moving SLOW enough. Above Mach 1 (the speed of sound in air) the rules change. So if The Flash wanted to flutter kick his was around his feet would actually need to be below the speed of sound. He wouldn’t be very stable if his toes created sonic booms every time they reversed directions (even though that’d be AWESOME as a weapon). Ok, flutter kicking has some effect so why not just combine that with the most obvious solution to The Flash getting airborne: jumping. Dude can run near the speed of light, so he gets going fast enough and then jumps. This jump is going to carry him some distance. I'm not sure if his legs are strong enough to straight up catch him when he hits the ground so it'd be good if he had some way of controlling his descent. Otherwise he might need stitches. As soon as his falling with style slows down to under Mach 1 he could flutter kick his feet between Mach 0.52 and Mach 0.95 (Yes, Jacob and Ben were creating actual calculations, go read their blog posts!) to stay thrusting through the air. My brain translating this into the one thing I could relate to: Flash can double jump! That in and of itself should be listed as a superpower, I’m sure Josh Richardson can testify to this as our resident gamer guy.


There are your science options for Flash flight. The irony of it all is that if he could fly he’d have to be moving slower than if he just stayed on the ground. I guess this is why Barry hasn’t done it yet. He, as a fellow scientician, probably figured this out years ago and it just laughing at us while reading this in the crime lab. Quit reading at work, Barry!


At the end of this entire conversation I pointed out that The Flash just spins his arms really fast and make mini vortexes to keep him hovering. Duh. Sometimes these eggheads really miss the obvious answers.

 

 


Ryan Haupt hopes everyone learned something from this, both about the Flash, physics and how scientists like to waste their time with their brains. If you want to hear more brainy time-wasting listen to his show Science… sort of.
 

Comments

  1. Is there another issue of The Flash coming out? Or was #5 the last one. Or have I just missed it?

  2. I was wondering when the mini vortexes would come up.  That’s how I get around.

  3. If we assume that, let’s say Bane would be strong enough to tear the Flashs leg off his body, then we can DEFINITELY assume, that kicking against something(not just stroking it like in running over it gently, but kicking the "tar like" air) with more than 150m/s would break the flashs legs if not worse.

    Even if the leg movements of this jumping technique is not directed in the oppisite direction the flash wants to jump, according to Newton the sum of all net-forces always is 0. SOMEWHERE he’d break something, definitely.

    You can’t apply physics to the flash. It can only work with the magical speed-force or he’d have to eat a million hamburgers every time he goes beyond mach whatever, he’d generate twisters, break his legs while accelarating or braking, heat up the air into plasma and all that stuff.

  4. I’m not a science guy, but science is one of the things that always made me love the Flash. To use superspeed of any kind, you really have to be somewhat of a scientist. Otherwise you’re just a guy who runs fast. One of the things I love the most about Johns’ and Waid’s runs on Flash were how they made the effort to talk us through the "science" of what Wally was doing.

    Of course you can’t apply any real world physics to comic book science. But it’s fun to think about. Which I would assume is why Ryan does this collumn. And I appreciate that. These are always fun to read. Even if half of it flies right out of my head.

  5. @Wheelhands I agree, I enjoyed the read and I always enjoy thinking about Superhero physics. I also read "The Physics of Superheroes" by famous physic prof James Kakalios(awesome book by the way with some real hardcore physics tried to make accessable at the end, really I I now read 3 winners in the Eisner column "best work ABOUT comics" and none were as entertaining as that).

     There is ONE Superhero phyisics riddle I always wanted to solve, but never achieved it: In JMS’s "Supreme Power" #18 Hyperion goes into space, super-accelerates  towards earth and his impact explosion is said to equal to 1 teraton. <-I always asked myself how fast Hyperion has been, but my knowledge about relativistic speed and energy relation is practically non-existent so… any of YOU has an idea?

  6. The speedforce is whatever the hell writers want it to be. It’d be nice if one were clever enough to write it like actual physics and limit the flash that way.

  7. I was just talking Flash Physics the other day, too.  I read an old, Silver-Age JLA in which an explosion knock Green Lantern unconscious.  Flash is on hand, though, and he runs up the debris created by the explosion, using various rocks in the air as stepping stones, grabs Green Lantern, and runs back down the debris, bringing Hal to safety.

     I was okay with Flash running up the debris, or at least I decided to let that part go.  But now does he get back down?  If he’s going to put one foot lower than the other to stand on a falling rock, he has to move his foot down faster than gravity would pull the rock (or him) down, so doesn’t he have to have push against something to descend faster than gravity would allow?  Plus, even if he could do it (and he obviously did. It was right there on the page. 😉 ), it seems like the result would not be that he saved Hal from falling, but rather than managed to make Hal fall faster than he would have fallen if Flash just let gravity do the work of getting Hal to the ground.

     And now that I think about it, it really couldn’t have worked.  At this point Hal is just another piece of debris in the air.  Flash is using the debris as stepping stones because at his speed they are essential stationary, immobile objects, which means Hal would also be a stationary, immobile object.  If a free-falling rock can support his weight, then how does he pull the just-as-stationary Green Lantern out of the sky?

     Now my head hurts. 

  8. The suit protects him from the friction? I always assumed it was the speedforce itself. If it’s the suit, then he can’t go fullspeed while not wearing it, and the lower half of his face should be pretty well done by now. I realize that’s all pedantic, but I don’t know much about the Flash, and the suit thing is counter to what I had assumed. 

  9. @r3v I’m pretty sure he makes his costume out of the speedforce (somehow), so it’s sort of the same thing.  There was that big double-page spread where the flash family all use the speedforce to give themselves new costumes.

  10. I know Wally’s costume is pure Speed Force. I would assume Barry’s is too but I think he still uses the ring costume. Doesn’t he? Katers?

  11. Yes, Flash can fly… he already does.

    Granted, this requires you interpret "fly" as "arbitrary downards force vector" akin to the same kind of flight demonstrated by his superhero bretheren (which is not properly categorized as antigravity since flight is not relative to gravitational bodies- particularly in deep space)… but Flash "flies" everytime he travels at landspeeds which exceed Escape Velocity (wiki it)… which is routinely.

    The aerodynamic discussion is interesting but it assumes the need to overcome gravity via lift… Flash, however, can overcome gravity simply by running straight, going faster than escape velocity… before gravity can bring his feet back to the curvature of the Earth.  The fact that Flash doesn’t go launching into space everytime he runs at those speeds is evidence of some abornormal extra-gravitational force keeping him in contact with the ground at will… so, in essence, "downard flight".

    There are a couple of other ways to get at "flight".  In the Flash novel, "Stop Motion" it was revealed that Flash is essentially a quantum being with speed merely a manifestation of that.  Under that theory, Flash could just fly at will (of course, he could a ton of other things at will like teleport, but that’s besides the point).  Kingdom Come Flash can fly and though not explicitly stated we can guess that he uses a similar manuever with the whole strata of space, time, and reality open to him, Flash’s flying is just stutter-stepping through space.  Various versions of Flash being converted to energy (Wally in the 90s, Barry the living lightning bolt in Secret Origins Annual #2, Wally in 80pg Giant #2) can all fly the way energy does.  Lastly, there’s "teleporting" to the Speed Force (which can even be done indoors as in Dead Heat) and running to the "end of time" where Flash is no longer traveling on a tangible physical surface… arguably flying.

  12. Oops… "downard" = "downwards"

    I just recalled another means of flight demonstrated in Wednesday Comics… if you vibrate to time travel statically, the Earth will move beneath you and your relative position in space will change independent of gravity… so a sort of flight (which Flash uses to get himself closer to the planet when thrown into space).

  13. can’t the man just buy a plane ticket??  cause this flying using superspeed stuff just sounds too hard

  14. I have instapapered the article, but I have a problem with the premise.A Jumbo Jet would be airborne, without thurst, at 180 mph. Sports cars have wings/spoilers just so it doesn’t flip over at high-speed. 

     

    The question isnt  "Can the Flash fly?", its "why isn’t he?".

     

    But this is why I love the speed force!

  15. SCIENCE!!!