The Science of... Flash #121

In 1961 the world was bubbling with technological advancements.

The spring of that year President John F. Kennedy gave the country the goal of sending an American to the Moon before the end of the decade. Project Mercury was already underway, halfway to its mission of putting a human in orbit around the Earth by February, 1962. Only a few years earlier the Laser had been invented, and by the end of 1962 light emitting diodes would be developed at GE. In addition to the new frontier of space, visionaries such as Jacques Cousteau were working on permanent undersea living facilities. Science and technology were omnipresent and unavoidable.

Evidently DC editor Julius Schwartz and Flash writer John Broome figured that science also sold comics, shown by the "Flash Facts" pages, and the integration of basic scientific facts throughout the stories of the early 60's. A couple years later I'd pore over that information as if it contained the secret footnotes to Einstein's theory of relativity. Re-reading them as an adult, however, some of those facts break down, but they're still interesting.

The first half of Flash #121 is the story "The Trickster Strikes Back!"

Centrifugal Force - On one page The Flash performs several acts of super-speed. In the first frame the editor's note says "Flash's astounding speed enables him at times to defy gravity itself!"

Ok, so the Flash can run up walls? I've seen Jackie Chan run up a wall in movies, and I've also seen pretty cool parkour stunts, but how would it be possible for the Flash to run up the side of a skyscraper? Whenever Jackie does it he's using his forward momentum to hold him to the wall long enough to push off with his feet. Unless he's bouncing between two wall, the forward momentum can only last a fraction of a second.

My first thought was "centrifugal force," which would have been wrong. Wikipedia tells me centrifugal force is a fictitious force, created by a centripetal force combined with Newton's First Law: a body in motion tends to stay in motion. When the two forces act on the body it causes it to move in a curve, such as a ball on the end of string going in a circle. When the centripetal force is removed by releasing the string, the ball travels in a straight line.

So, for the Flash to move up a skyscraper he would have to either have had a massive centripetal force applied to him at the base of the skyscraper, or he would have a continuous centripetal force applied to him perpendicular to the building. For the sake of the story I'm imagining he grabbed a horizontal bar at the bottom of the building and swung around that. His speed was great enough to provide the force to fling the scarlet speedster along the path of the building in such a way that he appeared to run up the side.

Gyroscopic Forces & Electrical Circuits - In the third panel of the same page Flash performs a literal high-wire act. "By moving fast I can keep my balance! And the voltage in these power lines won't affect me as long as no part of my body is in contact with the ground."

The second half of the statement is easier to corroborate. In an electrical circuit a ground is used for a return path for the electric current. Since the wires may not be insulated, and also since electricity follows the path of least resistance, if Barry Allen touched both the electrical wires and the ground he would become a literal flash.

It's the first portion about "moving fast" to keep his balance that I question. No matter how quickly the Flash is moving, his inertia (see Newton's First Law above) will make him tend to move in the same direction. If he stumbles he'll stumble quickly and lose his balance. The Flash might want to take a page from the tech of one of the Rogues, the Top. If the Flash was spinning he could use gyroscopic force to maintain his balance.

Aerodynamics - In the final panel the Flash avoids ending up as a street pancake with one of his favorite tricks: "By thrashing my legs at super-speed...I build up enough air pressure under me to ease my descent...and hit the ground slow enough to avoid these wires."

Potentially this could work, like a bumblebee in flight, as long as the Flash had airfoils on his feet. If he had some curved surface or articulated plane that could catch the air and produce an aerodynamic force then it just might work. Unfortunately, despite the little wings on his boots, I have never seen anyone mention that the scarlet speedster's costume is aerodynamic. It's more likely he'd beat the air and suffer some shattered tibia before the stunt was over.


In Flash #109 the writer explains how the Flash can penetrate walls "just as a tornado-driven straw can penetrate several feet of solid oak." Evidently that was regretted because they have a new surprise for us: The Flash evades an explosion by vibrating through a wall, perhaps the first time he uses this soon-to-be-common technique. "By vibrating his body at hyper-speed the amazing Flash can penetrate a solid wall because the molecules of his body in super-vibration slide past the molecules of the wall!"

Ok, believe it or not, we already have an example of molecules moving through walls: it's called osmosis. In osmosis water and other liquids move through a semipermeable cell wall without disrupting the membrane. Since humans are mostly water, it's just a short logical step from osmosis to the Flash vibrating through a wall, right?

Luckily, the Flash is able to overcome all these scientific hardships and put the Trickster behind bars once again.

In the second story, "Secret of the Stolen Blueprint!" Barry Allen attends his 10-year college reunion and meets up with a classmate who's working on a new hydrogen power generator. Spies steal the device and the classmate, who knows Barry's a friend of the Flash, asks for the superhero's help.

Persistence of Vision - In order to make it appear that Barry Allen and the Flash are two separate people, the Flash performs a stunt moving at great speed so it seems that both Barry and the Flash are in the room together. As the editor notes, "scientifically this effect is the same as that seen on a motion picture screen where the frames succeed each other so swiftly that they give the appearance of continuous action! By super-speed, Flash is enabled to appear in place as Barry or himself a sufficient number of times per second to fool the eye into thinking he is there all the time!!"

What the writer fails to mention is that in a motion picture camera there is a shutter that interrupts the image between frames, causing us to see a series of individual frames rather than a blur. Using persistence of vision, our brains merge the stream of individual frames into moving images. If it weren't for the shutter movies would be a muddled affair.


In the Flash's case, he would have to have some way of darkening the entire room in the transition times between Barry Allen and the Flash. Otherwise, his college chum will see a red blur passing between the images of the two men.

Turbulence - The Flash tracks the hydrogen power plant thieves to a submarine, and dives into the ocean. The editor makes two comments on this page. "At super-speed, the World's Fastest Human can swim for miles under the surface without rising at all!" and "Just as a powerful ship in passing can pull unwary swimmers into its propeller wake, so Flash can create the same effect!"

Assuming the Flash does not have hydrofoils on his feet, yes, it's likely that kicking at super-speed can create a turbulence that will pull in the spies. Wikipedia defines turbulences as "fluid regime characterized by chaotic, stochastic property changes. This includes low momentum diffusion, high momentum convection, and rapid variation of pressure and velocity in space and time." Exactly what the Flash is doing with his feet at super-speed.

As far as being able to swim for miles... the average person can hold his breath about two minutes. In various issues of the comic the Flash has run around the world in less than a few seconds. We know from the Flash #108 he can surpass the speed of light. In that case it should be easy to swim for miles in less than two minutes, but the big question is how the Flash can expend so much energy using only the Oxygen available to his limited capacity lungs?

Thanks to the DC Comics Database for a memory refresher on the plots of Flash #121.
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The Science of... Flash #109

Here's another entry looking at the science behind the principles mentioned in the Flash Comics of the 1960's.  In Flash #109 the Mirror Master returns and uses his mirrors again to befuddle both The Flash, and inadvertently Barry Allen.  Even as a kid I could see the "science" of the Mirror Master was pure fantasy, but there were some other aspects of the plot that have some roots in reality.

Air Resistance - The Mirror Master uses a special mirror to shrink The Flash so he's knee-high to a mouse. As he avoids the villain the Flash tumbles from the top of a building, but as the editor notes "It is a fact that tiny animals can fall from great heights without injury! This is because of the slight weight and the buoyancy of the air!"
There is a problem with this "fact." The force that slowed Flash's fall isn't the "buoyancy" of the air, since it would have to be the "the net upward buoyancy force is equal to the magnitude of the weight of fluid displaced by the body." In that case The Flash would be swimming in the air, yet we can see in panel that he's falling. The editor must have been thinking of air resistance, or drag. Wikipedia defines drag as "forces that oppose the relative motion of an object through a liquid or gas." So, as The Flash falls, the air resistances slows his descent.

Radiation - The last panel is packed with internal dialogue as Flash explains how he'll use "certain radiation" to grow back to his full size. A quick search on the internet shows that, yes, some amphibians, fungus, and plants grow larger under UV or infrared radiation, but the same search will also yield results showing that some tumors can grow and metastasize under similar radiation. Hopefully The Flash knows what he's doing, since he's full size a page later where we see my favorite "Flash Fact."


Tornado Forces - As the Flash erupts a wall the editor notes "just as a tornado-driven straw can penetrate several feet of solid oak, so can Flash at super-speed penetrate solid walls!" This was one of my most favorite Flash facts, as well as a convenient mechanism for speeding up the action. I mean, this "fact" gave the Flash the ability to run through walls -- way cooler than Superman bursting through the wall.  Fortunately for us we're dealing with fiction, since this ability is about as realistic as time-travel.

It's true that a tornado has a lot of force, and can send field grass flying at speeds greater than 200 mph. But most evidence and experimentation doesn't show that the straws pass through trees without harm to either object. MythBusters had an episode dedicated to answering the question whether the grass could go through the tree. In their experiment the grassy missile penetrated less than an inch into the tree.
"Propelling a piece of straw at a palm tree at a distance of 50cm at 320mph (the world record for recorded wind speed at ground level), the straw only managed to penetrate the tree a quarter of an inch. Even firing at the tree while it was bent (to increase the size of the pores in the surface of the tree) at point blank range added no additional distance into the tree. A piece of reed was tested as the sturdiest organic object that might be mistaken for a piece of straw. At both ranges, the reed only managed to go about two inches into the tree. Additionally, Jamie tried a piece of piano wire, and at 50 cm, it flew not only through the tree but through a sheet of plywood on the wall behind it, partially embedding itself into the cement wall."

Regardless of whether the straw could pass through the tree, if the Flash tried to use his super speed to zip through a wall, he'd probably end up partially embedded in it, or considering that he doesn't quite have the same structure as a reed, maybe splattered against it.
Actual straws that thought they were The Flash
Interestingly, during my web search I found I school in Texas that has a research lab studying the effect of wind-generated debris on structures. The lab has a device that shoots lumber, PVC pipes and steel rebar into fabricated walls. Perhaps the Flash should read their report before he tries that trick again.

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The Science of... Flash #108

The tagline to my blog is "everything I know, I've learned from comics." In a way this is completely true, since my original love for learning came from the comics I read. The Flash was especially inspiring, not only because of the superheroics, but because the writer & editor, John Broome and Julius Schwartz, put so many details into the stories. I especially liked the science tid-bits, not always factual, but always carefully documented with a footnote. Let me point out a couple I found in Flash #108.
Fulgurites - In "The Speed Doom!" other-dimensional aliens have been stealing items that were imbued with super speed, such as some fulgurites. According to the editor's note: "A fulgurite is fused sand or rock formed by the action of lightning!" Of course police-scientist Barry Allen knows all about fulgurites and he uses this bit of knowledge to crack the case.

Photo of an actual fulgurite
The Speed of Light - In the course of investigation he's tricked onto a treadmill which is designed to steal the Flash's speed. In a desperate attempt to escape the trap he runs faster than 186,234 miles per second, which is the speed of light. Despite science to the contrary, the Flash breaks this barrier and foils the trap.
Evolution - In "The Super-Gorilla's Secret Identity!" Grodd has invented an "Evolution-Accelerator" to advance him along the evolutionary track. Unfortunately, Grodd seems to have fallen victim to the same misapprehension as the Pokemon brood in believing that he can evolve himself. Evolution by definition takes place over generations. Perhaps Grodd meant that he was going to metamorphosize himself, or perhaps cause himself to mutate. Still, that proves even a super-gorilla can make mistakes, which is a good thing for the Flash.
A few pages later The Flash attempts to capture Grodd, and demonstrates two scientific principles and raises a philosophical one in just a few frames. First, he puts on such a burst of super speed that his shoes cause friction to ignite the Oxygen in the air, noting that our atmosphere contains Oxygen, and that friction can cause heat. Secondly, he cites the "irresistible force paradox," which boggled my mind in my younger days. Briefly stated: "What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?" Wikipedia mentions that the paradox is most often discussed in the context of God's omnipotence ("Can God create a stone so heavy it cannot be lifted, not even by God Himself?"), but I always imagined this as Flash's speed meeting Superman's invulnerability.
Thanks to the DC Comics Database for the summary of the plot.
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