Superman

Could he punch someone into space?

My answer is no, without even reading the link. I think that he could throw someone there (though they’d get cooked from the air friction on the way up), and they’d come back down unless they had escape velocity when they got to the top of the atmosphere, because there wouldn’t be an orbital insertion impulse. But if he punched them hard enough to do so, his fist would probably just take their head off. If he did it through their solar plexus, it would probably just go right through. People don’t consider the structural issues associated with superheroes and normal-human interactions with them.

Now Ralph Kramden, on the other hand… But then, he never carried out the threat.

14 thoughts on “Superman

  1. Paul Milenkovic

    Don’t remember the name of the book, something like “The World of Science”, but it is a middle-school reading-level introduction to the sciences and engineering research. The book is quite modest in that “the mathematician” pictured “going about his work” in front of a Venn diagram on a blackboard appears to be none other than Kurt Godel, only it doesn’t shout, “Hey kids, this man is Kurt . . . Godel! A rock star in mathematics!”. The two “theoretical physicists” pictured in front of blackboard with, what else, a Feynman diagram appear to be none other than Feynman (with his hair well trimmed and wearing a bow tie) and Gell-Mann. The book well predates PC and is very traditional in its use of gender pronouns.

    The section on Aeronautical Engineering introduced me at age 10 to the “Thermal Thicket” (as opposed to the much sharper “Sound Barrier”, where you either try to fly well above or well below the transonic speed owing to the goofy shock waves, as shown in this book with Schlieren images). In explaining the Thermal Thicket, this book explains to middle-schoolers contemplating a career in aerospace, that the heating is not so much from “friction” as it is from “the compression of air in the shock wave”, giving the analogy of “air getting hot when you pump up a bicycle tire.”

    So Rand, when you start ‘splainin’ the physics of Superman, could we get a “scientific consensus” around here that Mach heating of the Thermal Thicket is predominantly compression heating and not friction (or perhaps indirectly as viscosity is probably needed to form the shock wave)?

    The other thing is that the macroscopic velocity of the body put in orbit (the dude Superman punched) is in excess of the dude’s molecules being disassociated into atoms let alone the thermal velocity of H2-O2 combustion? Think Rocket Equation and the mass fraction of H2-O2 fuel to reach orbit and the kinetic energy of the orbiting body in relation to the combustion energy of the rocket fuel.

    Think why LACE doesn’t work above some suborbital Mach number and why the scramjet doesn’t attempt to slow the flow stream down to stagnation, as this would exceed the temperature of combustion of the fuel.

    Superman’s punch would not “take the guy’s head off.” It would turn the guy’s head into a glowing ball of ionized-atom plasma.

  2. Edward Wright

    But if he punched them hard enough to do so, his fist would probably just take their head off.

    Nonsense. Superman would never punch someone that hard unless they could take it. Superman is not allowed to kill or seriously injure anyone (except in the latest movie, where he is allowed to kill General Zod).

  3. Jason Bontrager

    I doubt he could even throw someone into space, unless they’d been encased in, and impregnated with, Lucite or something. I could be wrong of course, but wouldn’t the human body tear apart before reaching escape velocity if it was being held in only two places and spun from there? Maybe if the person was in a very strong bag…

      1. Paul Milenkovic

        Tear apart? How about vaporize . . . into a molecules dissociated into ionized atoms? You need to compare orbital velocity with the thermal velocity of the combustion temperature of chemical fuels. This is basic Chemical Rockets 101 — Rocket Equation, combustion thermal velocity, mass fraction stuff. This is why LACE doesn’t work and why people are researching the drink-from-a-fire-hose scramjet approach for airbreathing SSTO.

  4. ken anthony

    Alice Kramden, first astronaut. Yes, Meadows on the moon!

    The real problem is the difference between getting to orbit with just an initial velocity and getting to orbit with acceleration the entire way. All the energy expended up front is otherwise known as an explosion.

    1. Ed Minchau

      I have long thought that “Alice Kramden” would be a great name for a lunar lander. One of these days…

  5. Wansaka Musume

    Superman’s body emits a force field which frees his own body (and, later, surrounding objects) from gravitational and inertial forces. He warps space, in other words, making himself and everything around him massless and non-inertial. Example: in the 1978 Richard Donner film we see Superman flying across Metropolis with Lois, at times without holding her (or, at one point, even touching her). This ability to control inertia is why Superman can fly, lift ultra-heavy objects, and withstand tremendous impacts. It is why he can catch a falling building/space shuttle/girl reporter without damaging them or stop a speeding train without reducing it to a tube of tumbling scrap metal.

    The real enigma is Iron Man. When Tony Stark in armor gets hit by a flying steel girder, a meteor, or Hulk’s fist, the armor experiences extreme inertial forces. These forces are then transferred to the contents of the armor (Tony Stark), which undergo similar acceleration. Why doesn’t Tony Stark get pulped?

    It’s not a question of strength, but of inertia. The super-strong single-molecule “iron” armor may be able to withstand a Hulk punch, but the bone, flesh, and gristle “man” inside it most certainly will not. A fall from space, a hit with an anti-tank shell, or a blow from Thor’s hammer might not break the armor, but Tony Stark would certainly be reduced to something like gazpacho by the force of such a blow. It makes no sense!

  6. Robert M Mitchell Jr.

    Not a “normal person”, maybe, but the existence of Superman implies a world with supervillains, yes? Superman could punch a peer into orbit, no problem.

    And Superman has killed in the comics, including in one case, General Zod.

    1. Rand Simberg Post author

      Actually, if you follow the link, the analysis assumes that the launchee is a superman clone. There are still problems. This is sort of a “what if” of the Randall Monroe variety.

      1. Paul Milenkovic

        If the launchee is a superman clone/being, where force fields and inertial cancelation come into play, then your analysis of the guy’s head being knocked off is irrelevant.

        Besides being a political/polemical site, this place is also an aerospace site, and I think we should at least get the basics of the Thermal Thicket right and not use friction as an explanation for Mach heating. It is compression in the shock wave, and a 6th Grade level book on science and engineering careers even got that one right.

Comments are closed.