Last, but not least – gravitational flight. Flight not powered by organic wings or what you pulled together in your garage, but seemingly powered by nothing at all. Just you rebelling against gravity. Like the other two sections, this is fairly common to have, too.
There’s a few reasons for this. Organic flight and mechanical flight give some sort of connotation to the superhero – for organic, the superhero generally has some shared trait/implication with the animal whose flight they’re mimicking (lookin’ at you, Firefly). For mechanical, the superhero is usually either a genius or associates with geniuses. Gravitational flight doesn’t have to have any of those, which makes it an incredibly easy power to just spruce up a hero’s resume.
Secondly, gravity is still something we don’t quite understand. Superhero comic books love things that we don’t quite understand – take the overwhelming number of superheroes who got their superpowers by radioactivity of some kind, made in a time where we really weren’t sure of the full potential of nuclear energy. It negates having to explain how they got the power, which can be incredibly useful for suspension of disbelief.
So. Without further ado —
Superman. The original caped crusader. He first came onto the scene in 1938 with Action Comics #1 and hasn’t changed much from his All-American persona – despite being an alien! It’s fairly common knowledge that Superman, or Clark Kent, or Kal-El, was actually born on the planet Krypton and rocketed to Earth before his home planet was destroyed. From there, he was raised by his adopted parents in Kansas until he decided to become SpandexMan. Obviously, we’re going to focus on flight, but he has loads of other abilities in his arsenal. Strength, speed, invulnerability, laser eyes, x-ray eyes. Woah, compensating much? Still, there’s something about Superman that’s captured our attentions, even today.
Jessica Jones, relevant in the here & now because she has a TV show coming out soon! She’s appeared very recently, only in 2001. She’s closely tied with quite a few bigshot characters, namely Tony Stark and Peter Parker. She’s very human, and received her powers from – what else? – radiation exposure. After dipping in and out of a coma, she received what you’d expect from ridiculously high levels of radiation. Strength, invulnerability, and – as we’re talking about it – flight.
Okay, so where’s the magic trick? These superheroes don’t have wings, don’t have machines, so how exactly do they fly?
It’s not exactly explained, instead relying mostly on our suspension of disbelief. Which is a great thing for comics – nobody wants to sit through a 30 page explanation about how radiation doesn’t exactly let you fly or fun and titillating adventures about how Spider-Man valiantly tries to avoid getting arrested by the police for web-littering on a daily basis.
Still, though, what’s the closest thing we’ve got to explaining this sort of thing?
Or, more specifically, anti-gravity.
With nothing to physically lift them, the most obvious explanation seems to be a temporary and absolute reversal (or lessening) of gravity in their general location. After all, Superman is an alien – maybe he’s not used to gravity.
We don’t know the exact specifications of Krypton, but people have already posited that, while powerless on his own planet, Superman can fly on Earth because it has lower gravity. And there’s also something there about him getting powers because of Earth’s yellow sun, as opposed to Krypton’s red (and cooler) sun. You heard it here – Superman runs on photosynthesis.
It’s kind of like the moon. You’ve probably heard it. You can jump super far on the moon and put an American flag on the ground there. But why, exactly?
Among other things, gravity is determined by the size of the object. Moon’s pretty small, around a quarter of the size of Earth, which means the gravity is much less (83% less!).
Now, that’s really cool, but probably nothing you haven’t already heard of. Besides, Superman and Jessica Jones have been on the Earth for a while. What even is gravity, anyway? What causes it?
As of right now, gravitons haven’t been discovered. But as a couple of years ago, the Higgs-Boson hadn’t been discovered, either. In theory, gravitons would be a massless particle that mediated gravitational forces.
One of its biggest supporters is string theory. Other than being the go-to thing for the smart guy on sitcoms to quote, it essentially says, that on an extraordinarily small scale, you get strings instead of particles. A line instead of a dot.
Now, these strings are vibrating at any given time while interacting with one another. And, in a very particular vibrating state, these strings correspond to the graviton – how they relate.
Obviously, there’s a lot more to it ( one of the more popular parts of the theory being the explanations about black holes!) but that’s all we need for the purposes of a goofy superhero science blog post. Where gravity comes from.
Fine, spaghettification, black holes, hypothetical physics, whatever. Where’s the real flying stuff? How could they potentially actually fly without wings or jets?
Well, the closest thing that looks like it flew right out of a comic book is maglev. Specifically, SC Maglev.
The SC maglev is a magnetic levitation system currently under development in Japan. It runs, as you can expect, by magnets. The train itself has rubber wheels that can push it along, but due to the way the magnets are situated on the train, the entire car can hover around four inches above the ground when it passes 93 miles per hour. The very same magnets also keep it from going off the track, which is good when you’re going 90-odd-miles-an-hour.
Woah, you might say, 93 miles per hour seems pretty fast. Surely that’s top speed and you’re only levitating for a few seconds before you touch down.
375 miles per hour is the current record, set in April of this year. That’s quite fast for a train.
Currently, it’s not in the public yet, and is estimated to touch down in Tokyo around 2027. It would be public transportation, after all – they would have to make sure it’s safe.
It sounds almost like some sort of ‘would you rather’ game – would you rather fly far above the ground and be very slow, or be just a few inches from the ground and fly at nearly 400 mph?
Gravity is a strange topic to talk about. On one hand, it’s one of the first things we learn as children. We fall, we get bump, bump go ow, no fall anymore. On the other, it’s one of the most basic and essential forces in the universe and still has so much that we don’t understand, which partly makes an incredibly common superpower like flying make sense.
We talked a little about Superman, the superhero with the swoopy hair, and Jessica Jones, the radioactive renegade. They both have fairly similar superpowers but come from different backgrounds. For the alien, people usually list Krypton’s altered gravity as an explanation for his flight, similar to how we have reduced gravity on our moon.
Then we moved onto gravity in general, and we talked about hypothetical graviton particles and the basics of string theory, which, if proven, could do a lot to explain … well, everything. And we finally ended with just a wicked cool maglev train, because magnets are probably the closest thing we have to gravitational flight in the here and now.
Superman History, dccomics.com
History of Superman, Variant Comics
Jessica Jones History-
Jessica Jones History, marvel.com
Who is Marvel’s Jessica Jones? IGN
Krypton, Moon & Gravity –
A Brief History of Krypton, hollywoodreporter
Moon’s Gravity, moonconnection.com
Uneven Lunar Gravity, MIT
Gravitons and String Theory –
String Theory Overview, superstringtheory
The History of Supersymmetry, For Dummies
What Are Gravitons?, PBS
Graviton Detection, phys.org
SC Maglev –
How Maglev Trains Work, howstuffworks
Japan Maglev Train Breaks World Record – Again! BBC