Of Superheros and Conservation of Energy

Posted By Pamela on Sep 25, 2007 | 16 comments

So it is premier week and my husband’s Window’s Media Center (his, not mine), is jubilantly happy at all the new material it has to record. We just finished watching the first new episode of one of our favorite shows, Heroes (no spoilers ahead), and I have to say that this voice in the back of my head keeps yelling – Where’d all the energy come from? – every time someone does something extraordinary. I know, I know, how can I set aside my disbelief and get caught up in shape shifting, alchemy, flying, regeneration and all the like and get upset about energy. Well, um… The voices in my head aren’t consistent, ok?

Seriously though, I can sorta kinda get on board with things like regeneration and electric pulses, where the body is doing something some biological life forms can do, but at accelerated rates. The only catch is, generating electricity or regenerating cells requires a LOT of energy, and these folks aren’t using their powers and then chowing down frantically. I have the same moments of broken suspended disbelief with the X-Men and randomly with Jedi. At least Lucas had his Jedi seem to struggle to do things that required energy, and they seemed to get tired using the Force.

Think of it this way, imagine that X-Wing Luke lifted out of the swamp weighed 50,000 lbs (similar to a F14). It would take a little over 222,000 Newtons to hold that thing up! To move it a mere 3 meters straight up at constant velocity would require 666,000 Joules! Excited yet? Well, here’s the sad part: 222,000 joules is the same amount of energy your body extracts from a 160 Calorie can of soda (That’s ~13 ounces worth of Coke-a-Cola). So, if it was possible to convert food energy into pure work without any losses to useless stuff, we could do amazing feats.

But, you are thinking, if it only takes Luke 160 calories to lift that X-Wing, why do I think he should feel starved from the exertion? Well, I don’t think it was a feat that could be done at constant velocity fighting only gravity. There was “friction” from the swamp sucking on the X-Wing and he certainly didn’t move it at constant velocity. I’m betting he easily blew 500 calories on that X-Wing. Give the guy a protein bar!

Part of my annoyance probably comes from reading Marion Zimmer Bradley‘s Darkover books at too young an age. Her characters (in some cases) can do telepathy, build things, heal things, etc, using crystals to amplify their bodies’ electrical fields. After doing stuff, they feel half-starved and power eat like a long distance runner. She got it.

I’m not asking for much. I just want hereos to get physically exhausted from using their powers, and maybe even to do a little carb loading or refer to it as a weightloss plan that doesn’t require exercise. Just talk about energy a little bit please. This one small scientific thing you can totally get right just with a Power Bar or two. (And, to lift a 175 lb male 1000 meters into the air at constant velocity would require 187 Calories if you assume no drag – and there is drag folks. And they weren’t going at constant velocity. These guys need to at least break a sweat).


  1. Agreed. Also, while they are addressing the conservation of energy issue, they might explain how the character’s bodies avoid the almost certain damage done to cells that are subject to the forces exerted upon them…lifting, friction, heat etc. Suspending science, though, makes a good story sometimes, no?

  2. Do you remember that (unfortunately) short lived superhero TV show, The Flash? In that show, they had him eating constantly. They also implied that he had to buy a ton of groceries DAILY.

    I found it on IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098798/

    Wow, I hope I can find that show on DVD. My nostalgic memory remembers that show as being awesome.

  3. I don’t recall all the particulars of how the force works for Jedi, but I believe there is some sort of idea about tapping into an omnipresent “force” in the universe. So Luke may be just harnessing the energy around him and reusing it for his own purposes. Luke is just a giant energy leech. I think I saw those swamp trees behind him wilting as he lifted the X-wing! πŸ˜›

  4. 1. Maybe the whole reason they have superpowers is because they have these ultra-efficient metabolisms that allow them to turn food directly into power.

    2. It is definitely “our” Tivo.

  5. I’ve also had similar encounters. I remember watching this cartoon: Megas XLR, which was basically about a group of teenagers and a gigantic (giant) robot. It’s amazing how much the robot expends everyday – I mean a not just trip from New Jersey to Las Vegas, but things like going to Saturn (and further), but still with ORDINARY gasoline? It’s an interesting show, but this is what makes giant robots so unlikely to be build any time soon.

  6. Technically speaking πŸ˜‰ Luke Skywalker channeled the Force which is presumably an energy field created by all living things (or at least the midochloridians living within the tissues of larger creatures). After all, the Force can extend over great distances and through subspace as evidenced by Obi Wan Kenobi wincing when Alderaan was vaporized. So you might consider that the energy Luke uses is primarily generated by life forms around him and therefore Luke might only be a conduit as opposed to the primary source of the required energies.

    We could surmise something similar is happening with our friends on Heroes. After all, if their genetic mutations are allowing them to perform such amazing feats we could also allow for an underlying NBC Force into which the Heroes tap into to provide the power they require. The same could be true for the genetic X-men mutants. (Say, does Hollywood have any original ideas anymore?) And who the heck knows what’s actually happening on LOST, but I suspect Desmond might be tapping into such a field as well. It must take a lot of energy to do the time travel thing!

  7. This is a fun line of thought!

    Eragon follows the same rule. Magic uses the same amount of energy as if the feat had been done manually, distance increases the effort required, etc. It helps nicely to answer the “why can’t the hero just use a spell to kill the bad guy from afar?” question.

    I enjoy the blog. keep up the good work.

  8. The magic on Discworld works like that too.

    For example, at one time, the Archchancellor of the Unseen University wanted to levitate (to get a better view). He had to blast off part of a tower parapet and use the potential energy of the falling rocks to lift himself. At another time, Rincewind used his mind to lift a locking mechanism and had a huge headache because the opposing force pushed his brain towards the bottom of his cranium.

    But I choose to believe that people in Heroes tap the void energy of the universe. That’s a huge amount of energy. All you have to do is control it.

  9. Oh and it’s not Luke that did the actual lifting of the X-Wing, it’s Yoda!

  10. There was one episode of Heroes that sort of covered this.

    When HRG came for Nathan after his evening with Jessica in Vegas, he flew off to avoid them. When he landed, it was at the diner where Hiro was having some breakfast…

  11. Good points in this article!! Interestingly enough, Superman is ‘solar powered’ and stores the energy he gets from the sun in his body. Its supposedly our yellow sun that gives him his powers.

    The question is whether or not he gets enough power from the Sun to do the extraordinary things he does… I guess according to the story he didn’t use any of his powers until late puberty, so 13-16 years of storing solar energy, plus the amount he gets every day…perhaps Superman is few super heroes to obey the laws of conservation of energy!

  12. The Eragon books by Christopher Paolini were on that track. Using magic took lots of energy. The magnitude of the feat determined how much energy would be needed for that feat, if the feat was too large or over too vast a distance, it could cost the person performing the magic their life. Too bad the movie was crap.

  13. I ran cross country in school. To prepare for the five mile races, we ran 15 miles, twice a day. That’s right, 30 miles a day on foot. I figured it was over 4,000 calories burned per day. As my diet didn’t change (probably around 2,500 calories), you might expect that i’d have lost weight. But no. I gained weight – possibly muscle mass.

    My guess: the body can be really efficient if it wants to be. I’ve personally experienced a factor of eight improvement in body efficiency for more than one kind of task.

    And yet. “Eat a donut and run a mile – you’re even.” has been the rule. Of late, exercise has been encouraged in weight loss programs having to do with building muscle mass as a way of improving body chemistry having to do with coping with sugars. So, weight lifting is back in.

    So, no, i don’t think they’re going to need that extra pizza. And pizza it is in the X-Men lounge. Hercules talks about beer and pizza as “the nectar of the Gods”.

  14. Part of me wants to cringe and say “Oh, come on, where would the fun be in that?” If you want to make a super-story, you have to break a few laws of physics. Or something. πŸ™‚

    On the other hand, Marvel at least gives a hand-wave to the needs of some of the energy hungry powers. Cyclops (and his brother Havoc) convert solar energy (Cyclops have occasionally been drained of power in dark places) for instance and so does Sunspot. As for damage caused by some powers (notably high-speed flying), most such character have been equiped with some kind of invulnerability or force-shield to protect them (Lightspeed, Cannonball, etc.) This does not alieviate the problem with conservation of energy but at least the writers recognized the problem (even if the then hand-waved it away).
    Also, several characters drain energy (and occasionaly mass) from “extra-dimensional sources” thereby sidestepping all of physics as we know it today.

    As for Star Wars, I find it much more implausible that they cross interstellar distances in practically no time (How long between Anakin and Amidala (on Tatooine) find out about Obi-Wan’s situation (on Geonosis) to they arrive on that planet? Hmm?) than the Force feats.

    It is also interesting to note that Isaac Bonewits (the only person (in the US at least) to ever get an academic degree (BA) in Magic (from UC Berkely)) notes in his book “Real Magic” that the reason magic users (which he claims exist) in the real world does not throw fireballs or shoot lightningbolts is that it takes the same amount of energy to do things by magic as by other ways and it is very difficult to raise that much magical energy!

  15. Years ago, I read an article in Wizard (the magazine about comic books) which pretended to be written by Dr Charles Xavier (leader of the XMen). It said that the mutation that gives them powers isn’t in the nuclear DNA but the mitocondrial (I assume I spelled it wrong) DNA. The mutation replaces normal cellular respiration with another comic-book-science process that converts the entire mass to energy, resulting in a lot more energy available. Then, it is probably the nuclear DNA that determines how that energy is used, resulting in each mutant having a unique power. This also puts an upper limit on how powerful a mutant can be.

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  1. Burzycki.org » Astrosphere for September 25th, 2007 - [...] to back it up. Pamela Gay gets frustrated by television physics as well - she thinks our heroes should…
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