Let’s talk about speed.
A few superheroes go faster than the average dude. Whether it’s running, flying, or swinging from building to building, these guys don’t have to sit in rush-hour traffic. For now, I’m talking about the guys who have superspeed as their main power, the ‘thing’ that they’re known for. No heroes that have a dozen powers, the least cool of which happen to be a two-minute mile. Looking at you, Superman.
The most prominent examples, especially in recent times, are Marvel’s Quicksilver and DC’s Flash. They have about a twenty year gap: Flash’s first appearance was in 1940, Quicksilver in 1964. Let’s have a little background. Until recent publications, Quicksilver (Pietro Maximoff) was born with his superspeed. Multiple characters throughout comic book history are depicted as ‘The Flash’, although their powers always come from some sort of accident. Either way, the outcome is the same. These guys can go faster than a speeding bullet (and, presumably, much faster than a bullet following traffic laws).
What sort of real-life comparisons could we make to this? What’s the closest thing we can think of to our speedsters? A rocket? A cheetah?
Let’s start big.
There’s a record for aircraft and spacecraft, but let’s stay with things that are on the ground. We don’t want to get into flying just yet. The record for landspeed is currently held by the appropriately titled ThrustSSC (Thrust Supersonic Car). It’s held the title since October 1997, and looks a little like the Batmobile.
The record is 763 miles per hour, and is currently the only land vehicle known to have broken the sound barrier.
How does it go so fast? If you’ve looked at the picture, you’ll notice the massive components on either side of the driver. Those have a bigger purpose than looking sweet. They’re Rolls-Royce Spey engines, primarily used on things like fighter jets (McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II), jetliners (BAC One-Eleven), attack aircraft (Blackburn Buccaneer), and eventually developed to be used for frigates (Type 23 Frigates).
Of course, one of the major ramifications of superspeed, human or vehicular, is the amount of energy it takes to generate. The ThrustSSC burns through 4.8 gallons per second.
The same people who developed the ThrustSSC are in work to develop what they’ve coined the ‘1000mph Car’ – Bloodhound SSC. Still just as viable as a ride for a superhero, but with a sweet new color scheme!Tests are expected to take place 2015-2016, and it looks like they’re on track to beat the record.
But, hey, Quicksilver and Flash aren’t cars. Let’s go more biological. Look at the fastest living thing. The first animal that most people think of is the cheetah, and that’s true. The cheetah is the fastest land mammal, topping out at around 75 mph for short distances. They can accelerate and decelerate quickly, and as a result, chases don’t last very long and they can give up easily. Their bodies tend to go into overdrive during the chance – heart rate and temperature spike while they’re hunting that tasty zebra.
Now, technically speaking, there are animals that go faster than the cheetah. The fastest animal alive is the Peregrine falcon. It might be cheating a little as it obviously can’t run, but it can reach well over 200 mph when it dives. It’s certainly harder to measure fish, but some studies show that blue marlin can reach a top of 80 mph. Still, we said we were going to stay with land animals. Aquaman is saved for another day.
A cheetah that can go speeding down the highway isn’t fast enough. Let’s get faster. Another way of classifying creature speed is taking their body into account – that is, body lengths per second. In this category, the cheetah doesn’t win: it only goes about sixteen body lengths per second.
The South Californian mite, Paratarsotomus macropalpis. This ugly-looking guy.
0.7 mm long, and a reminder of how gross bugs can look. What’s really cool about these guys, though, is that we didn’t know about their speed until recently but they were discovered in the early 1900s.
The second bug holding the record was the Australian tiger beetle, reaching max speed of 4.2 mph with a total of 171 body lengths. The South Californian mite blows it out of the water.
So, how fast can the mite go?
… At 0.7 mm long, our little buddy can go about 0.50 mph. The amazing Ticksilver!
Still, remember, we said we were measuring speed taking body length into account. With that in mind, he’s going 322 body lengths per second. Equivalently, that would be an averaged sized human going 1,300 mph. Granted, that’d consume a massive amount of energy, but let’s go under the assumption that speedy superheroes have a very quick metabolism. With that in mind, we are doing laps around the Bloodhound SSC. Not bad.
But you know what 1,300 mph is slower than? Some speeding bullets. Not all, but just for simplicity’s sake, let’s try to go faster than every speeding bullet ever fired.
Let’s go faster and more theoretical. The fastest thing on Earth is light, usually depicted as the letter c. Light travels at 670,616,629 miles per hour. If Flash ran as fast as light (and there’s some hypothetical consequences of running at the speed of light, but let’s assume that Flash and Quicksilver can break the basic rules of physics), it would take about 8 minutes to reach the moon. He could run the entire circumference of the Earth in .13 seconds. That’s not bad!
Now, going the speed of light on Earth is impossible for probably dozens of reasons, mostly because of Einstein’s famous mass-energy equivalence formula (e=mc^2). But if we’re talking about speed, let’s go faster than the speed of light!
Tachyons have featured in quite a few science fiction shows (including the new Flash!). It’s entirely hypothetical and there’s almost no evidence for them to actually exist. Tachyons have sister particles called luxons (massless particles that travel at the speed of light) and bradyons (slower than the speed of light). Those two particles both exist.
Frankly, who knows how fast Flash and Quicksilver could go if they were faster than the speed of light. At that point, it’s hard to even hypothesize about: die, go back in time, leave the Earth’s orbit entirely. Who knows?
‘Tachyon’ first came about in a paper by Feinberg in 1967. Without getting too into it, he basically theorized that certain quantum fields with certain properties would go faster than light. They don’t, unfortunately, but the term ‘tachyon’ still lives on as a term for a quantum field with negative squared mass. And for allowing pretty cool time-travel stuff in Star Trek.
Obviously, superspeed in the realm of Quicksilver or Flash is physically unattainable. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s a completely foreign concept to imagine. It’s not too hard to look at a cheetah or sit in rush-hour traffic and think about someone running at superhuman speeds.
As humanity, we’re interested in speed. We’re trying to make a car that goes 1000 miles per hour, we’ve discovered the fastest living creature in the past two years, we’ve made dozens of sci-fi instances of going faster than light. Maybe there’s an analogy there to the speed at which we progress technology, an interest to go faster and do better.
Either way, it’s pretty cool.
Quicksilver: Marvel History, marvel.com
Visual History, watchmojo.com
Flash: DC History, dccomics.com
Visual History, Variant Comics
Thrust SSC: Official website, thrustssc.com
News Article, cnn.com
Rolls-Royce Spey Engine History, thrustssc.com
Rolls-Royce Spey Engine Overview, rolls-royce.com
Bloodhound SSC: Official website, bloodhoundssc.com
Bloodhound SSC delays, arstechnica.co.uk
Bloodhound SSC game plan, popularmechanics.com
Not the Mite:
Neat-O Cheetah Facts, defenders.org
Peregrine Speed, allaboutbirds.org
Black Marlin Speed, BBC Worldwide
Forget the Cheetah, techtimes.com
Move Over, Australian Tiger Beetle, sciencedaily.com
Fastest Land Animal, natureworldnews.com
Light: Speed of light, grc.nasa.gov
How is the speed of light measured?, math.ucr.edu
History of the Speed of Light, physicsoftheuniverse.com
Tachyons: Do Tachyons Exist?, math.ucr.edu
Tachyon Overiew, scienceworld.wolfram.com
Related: Cherenkov Radiation, math.ucr.edu