February 13th, 2008
I was thinking today about the “Reals” of the Heroes Network and what superpowers are now within the reach of our science and technology. Most superpowers are ridiculously unphysical, as described in the really fun book, Physics of Superheroes, which the author James Kakalios fashioned after a class he teaches at the University of Minnesota. There are some superpowers that we’re just never going to be able to have in the real world (virtual realities are a different story). Some of these include growing or shrinking, as they violate conservation of mass, or the ability to walk through walls, teleportation, or superspeed that would enable someone to run over water without sinking or be effectively invisible because they move too fast to be seen. And people transforming into animals like Beast Boy? Oh, come on!
Wikipedia actually keeps a long list of comic book superhero powers for the anal power counter.
There are some powers that do not violate the laws of physics as we know them. I’ll start with the more straightforward powers and get more esoteric as we go along.
Bullet Proofness: This is pretty mundane as powers go, but a basic one I think every superhero needs. It can be implemented a number of ways: super tough skin ala Superman, bullet-deflecting bracelets as with Wonder Woman, Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton plus fast healing, or the bullet-proof armor of Michael Keaton’s movie Batman. I suggest simple is good and fine here, and recommend commercially available bullet-proof clothing. Such technology is impressive in action. This isn’t the sexiest superpower, but it will give Mr. or Mrs. Real who is staying at home with the kids a little peace of mind.
Super strength: Again, a basic power that’s necessary to knock down doors or lift up cars to save trapped people. Superman and the Hulk have this naturally, in abundance, but Krypton isn’t real and gamma rays will just kill you. Iron Man and about a million characters with exoskeleton armor show a technologically feasible implementation, which we can manage already. Not exactly commercially available, but if you’re a military contractor high up in the research labs, you can make your own I suppose, and charge the government for it. I don’t recommend cyborg action here, as with the Six Million Dollar Man — he should have ripped his arm off several times every episode.
Flight: Superman’s got this one down, but I don’t know how. When he first appeared, he just made giant leaps like the Hulk, which made some sense, but he and a gazillion others, including the entire Legion of Superheroes via their flight rings, all get to float through the sky with the greatest of ease. While we’ve made some progress with various forms of gliders as seen in the Tomb Raider sequel and elsewhere, similar to what the Falcon has and Batman uses in Batman Begins, these aren’t true flight. What can we do? Jet packs are now being manufactured for sale to duplicate some things the Rocketeer can do, and perhaps Nighthawk of the Defenders (who somehow hid a superpowerful jet pack under his cape). I don’t know that they can lift an exoskeleton though, and the propellant is used up in about a minute so check your altitude. But for $100k, I don’t know what else you’d buy. And flight would be handy if you don’t want to stick around and explain yourself to the police who might not like a vigilante around.
Invisibility: This is one superpower I think everyone really craves to have, and is tremendously underrated in a fight. I guess in the case of the Invisible Woman, when you’re fighting Dr. Doom or the Super Skrull, it doesn’t help much, but against street thugs it would be killer. We’re not going to have true invisibility any time soon, but we will have active camouflage as in Predator. Here’s a nice article from science-fiction writer Wil McCarthy explaining the video and what will likely come soon, or is already in existence and classified. Apparently there are plans for invisible vehicles, so Wonder Woman’s invisible jet isn’t so far fetched as it might seem (and it always seemed that way to me!).
Wall-crawling: Science has managed to duplicate the incredibly powerful, residue-free stickiness of geckos as described here. Gloves and boots coated with this material in principle will allow people to climb walls like Spider-Man, although I suspect few save real climbers will have the appropriate strength-to-weight ratios to do this well.
Mental Telepathy: Want to project your thoughts like Professor X? And receive the thoughts of others? This is possible, but it’s sort of a cheat cobbling together several elements for a basic implementation. We have the technology to control computers with our minds, the simplest case being moving a computer cursor by thinking. We also have technology coming along to project displays onto our retinas with contact lenses. Combining these with cell phone technology and simple text messaging would let you send messages to other people wearing similar systems just by thinking them.
Electrical Blasts: How about some offense, like the Shocker or Electro? Well tasers are a simple version of this, delivering an incapacitating shock. Hey, that’s fun to watch! High-power capacitors can work, too, and can hold killing charges. Good superheroes will stick with non-lethal weapons, like Wolverine’s claws or the Human Torch’s fireballs. Wait…
Heroic Leaps: Want to make out like The Tick, Bouncing Boy, or match the moves of the Toad or Batroc the Leaper? No problem! If I were a criminal and saw a bunch of guys in bright costumes coming at at me like this, I’d freaking run like mad.
Seeing in the Dark: There’s a nearly direct match available to the blind like Daredevil’s radar sense. Kids today are actually being taught to echolocate. To see in the dark like Dr. Mid-Nite, you’re probably better off with a set of generation 3 night vision goggles with response out to infrared wavelenths (about a micron) and an infrared illuminator. I have a set of goggles like this, and they’re not only fun to play with at night, they’re a fantastic addition to the equipment of amateur astronomers. You can literally see the Andromeda Galaxy with a casual glance at the sky, and many, many more stars that you’ve ever seen in your life.
Fear Projection: Okay, this one is more for villains like Mr. Fear or the Scarecrow, but didn’t Batman justify his costume with the notion that criminals are a superstitious, cowardly lot? An infrasound gun is your tool! Infrasound is low frequency acoustic waves below the hearing threshold that have disturbing psychological effects. And I’m waiting for a horror movie to come out with an infrasoundtrack.
Web-Spraying/Paste Pots: The military developed a sticky foam gun that sounds a lot like what good old supervillain Paste Pot Pete (AKA The Trapster) uses. It’s a reasonable facsimile of what Spider-man does when he corrals the bad guys for police pick up.
I imagine I’ve missed some other obscure powers, especially offensive heat rays or dazzling lights (i.e., the Dazzler who should have died with disco), that we could duplicate effectively today if so determined. Any suggestions?