Can an Iron Man Suit Be Made?: Science Behind Superheroes

On Friday, I hosted a live Reddit Q&A  on the Science Behind Superheroes along with several other GE researchers, including Chief Scientist Jim Bray, Physicist Scott Price and Edison Engineer Justin McHugh. We had a great time answering questions on topics that ranged from shoe treads for running at super speed to a Mom looking for a truth-compelling lasso to use on her teenaged kids. While we tried to stick to the science, we did have some fun with some of the answers as well. Click here to view the Reddit Q&A or check out this article written about the chat by Jay Deitcher, an educator on comic history.


We also received questions via Twitter, and you can read our responses below. Take a look and feel free to leave any of your questions you have in the comment box beneath this post. Also, with all of the excitement around Superheroes, we were inspired to create a superhero of our own: GENIUS MAN. Genius Man sprung from our imagination, but the technologies he possesses are real and impact the world today.

Be sure to check him out and share him with your kids to show them that you don’t have to be a Superhero, to have superpowers. You can become an engineer or scientist and employ technologies to make possible what was only dreamed of in the past.


Questions on the Science Behind Superheroes asked via Twitter

Our Chief Scientist doing calculations on the back of a napkin during the live Q&A!
Our Chief Scientist doing calculations on the back of a napkin during the live Q&A!

Can I become invisible? – @Xafaryab
By the known laws of physics, it is impossible to become invisible in the sense of becoming undetectable by any means. It would be possible to bend light around you by a large gravity field, but that would put you in great danger. Some ‘metamaterials’ can deflect light around you, but for only certain wavelengths.

How deep of a crater are we talking for #manofsteel to take off standing still on concrete? – @LCfromLCVA
Worst case would be if he wanted to get somewhere as fast as possible (near the speed of light), which would require all the energy he could produce (since light speed requires infinite energy), which would produce maximum breakage of the concrete.

Do you believe there is alien life outside of the Milky Way? – @Psolocup14
I absolutely do, simply by the statistics of the number of stars and planets that exist.  The question is whether humans would ever encounter that life and to what extent it is intelligent (rather than something simple like algae).  For a fun read on possible answers to Fermi’s Paradox (look it up on Wikipedia) see

Is X-ray vision even possible? – @AlyssaAlda 
It is possible with technology in the sense that our medical and inspection x-ray machines do it all the time. The superman way is not very realistic. What is the source of the X-rays? Why do they penetrate walls of the building but not also what is inside? How do those X-Rays return to his eyes with the information? X-ray technology has a source of x-rays that go through the object then separately a detector to read information from them.

Could the Sun give someone from another galaxy super strength? – @DustyiD
No. Our sun type and emission is common throughout the universe.  If a yellow sun makes a red sun alien get such powers – as yellow sun creatures, would humans have similar boosts in a blue sun’s system? Also note the energies giving him this power must be able to penetrate the earth’s core since he is not hampered at night. I tend to prefer the “heavier gravity of Krypton” explanation for his flight (jumping), strength and toughness powers (ignoring heat vision, x-ray vision, etc.)

How come no one ever saw a cape crammed inside of Clark Kent’s dress shirt? – @AudioGasoline
Everyone knows Clark Kent is superman. No one is willing to call him on it. That is why he does not bother with a mask. I mean really, would you? It is easiest and safest to just play along.

But you know what GE, I’ll humor you: how does Spider-Man stick to walls through his suit? – @Doncates
According to the comics, or at least a battle with electro from the 90s some time (I was a kid so I don’t recall the issue), it is “static”. Electro uses his powers to render spidey unable to for a while.

I’m interested in obtaining Spiderman powers… any suggestions? – @karynrae
Probably not a good idea to use trial and error on this with an empirical study.  There are some really nasty spiders out there.

Let’s be honest – we all want to fly! What would make #ManofSteel type of flight happen? – @JLanie 4m
Nothing, although jet packs are probably closest to it. Some base jumpers with ‘squirrel suits’ consider themselves a flying as they fall.

How much upward force would Superman need to generate to save a falling 747 assuming free fall and full passenger load?  – @The_Nuch
Most likely his tiny hands would create points of stress on the airframe and thus more power. He’d do better to guide and glide it to a safe landing than try to hold it.

Can GE build an Iron man suit?  – @sc2pace
Not like in the movies, but some elements (e.g., armor, exoskeleton strength) are possible.

How does Superman shave? – @WVPLCommish
I think Bill Nye’s answer was best, but I enjoyed all the responses. Gillette did a nice job with that YouTube page.

About the sonic boom. Is it possible something with that little mass to make a boom as loud as shown? – @Adnab80
All supersonic objects create a sonic boom, but the size of the boom does depend on the size and shape of the object.  A Bullet or the tip of a Bullwhip are examples of small mass objects that “boom”.

Would Superman’s top speed be limited to the speed of light?  If not, does moving faster make him invisible? – @cyclist19591m
Some equations predict the speed of light is self-limiting, that your size and mass grow as you approach it, so you are never able to achieve it without infinite energy.