GeekOut

The science of 'The Flash'

With a brand new "The Flash" comic book series set for release on Wednesday (and a first look at some of the artwork from the book in the gallery above), we asked new artist and co-writer Francis Manapul to talk about the science of one of the most famous science fiction-based superheroes.

"We have a bit of a leeway in [exploring ‘comic book science,’" he said. "What’s been really fun is finding real world scientific facts and pushing the ideas. When you read science journals where they’re theorizing, we’re able to ask, 'what if that wasn’t just a theory, but it was real?' With Barry [Allen, the Flash's altar ego] being a scientist himself, there’s lots of ways we can explore that."

The Flash can't just run so quickly that he can run on water, but he can also vibrate through objects. "This may not be [scientifically] possible for us to do, but the Flash can do it," he said. "Readers [today] are more science savvy. They need that little wedge of cheese to bring them along, to let them know it’s based on science. We’re putting steroids on science and we’re pumping it up."

Who better to ask about "science on steroids" than a scientist? James Kakalios, professor of physics at University of Minnesota, is also a big comic book fan (to the point where he was asked to consult on a different DC comic book, "The Fury of Firestorm," also in stores Wednesday). About "The Flash," he told CNN, “Once you grant a suspension of disbelief, how he uses his super-speed would be correct from a physics point of view."

The oft-mentioned "speed force" in the comics is "an attempt to basically get around the fact that there was no way the Flash could be made consistent with the conservation of energy," according to Kakalios.

“He would have to eat a great deal in order to maintain his metabolism," he pointed out. "After a while you realize the numbers just don’t work. A typical Flash running at his various speeds would have to eat something like 500 million cheeseburgers to run at the speeds he’s doing, even chewing super fast."

“The speed force is a higher way of saying, 'relax it’s a comic book.'"

Sean Carroll, a physicist at the California Institute of Technology, said, "You can’t go faster than the speed of light, but we can go close to the speed of light as we want using particle accelerators. But the individual particle is lighter than a human being."

Bottom line: The Flash could not realistically do what he does. "In our bodies, if we try to speed ourselves up, we would die because we’re not meant to move that quickly," Carroll said. "Even though there is a lot of physics involved in traveling the speed of light, there is no realistic way that the human body could get to those kinds of speeds."

Tachyons, particles that can move faster than the speed of light, are theoretical in nature here in the real world, but are very real in the DC Comics Universe, and often referenced in books like "The Flash."

"The fact that we do have ordinary particles in this world probably means that we don’t have tachyons," said Carroll. "But we try to stay open-minded and imagine the possibilities."

All of this is not to say that humans can't travel at incredible speeds.

“We use an amazing organ, namely the brain and we’ve been able to go at extremely high velocities, twice the speed of sound, using this brain," said Kakalios. "Can we do it by purely running? No. But in a way, we are the Flash, because we are able to go great distances at high velocity, but we’re using our real superpower: our intelligence.”

As for other comic books, films, and TV shows, Kakalios and Carroll say that the science is getting better to some extent, because writers and producers are reaching out to academia more often to get advice.

“As long as you realize as a scientist that it’s not all going to be scientifically accurate, and you don't get hung up on that, you can help to craft an interesting story, and add a little real science into it," said Kakalios. "It’s a win-win for everyone. And you never know, you might spark someone’s interest [in science].”