biology question #3882



Ryan, a 20 year old male from Pittsburgh, PA asks on May 31, 2006,

Q:

I'm curious about the possibility of "real"  superheroes.  Even though I think it's impossible, theoretically,  what if someone  had some sort of birth defect and had both red  and white muscle  fiber, and especially someone with  extraordinary inherited physical  strength? Would this person  have unbelievable strength & stamina  and basically be  superhuman? If someone had an unbelievable  concentration of this  dual muscle fiber and also worked out much  more often than the  average person, could they theoretically have  an insane amount  of muscle mass--i.e., enough to stop knives/bullets?

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the answer

The Questing Vole answered on May 31, 2006, A:

This question proposes a hypothetical birth defect.  If you accept  the proposal then the only answer is yes: hypothetically the  resulting "insane amount of muscle mass" could stop a bullet.   Bullet design is a precise science and manufacturers calculate the  stopping power of bullets by estimating tensile strength of muscle   (roughly 1 to 4 MPa (145 to 580 lbf/in²) according to wikipedia).   If the tensile strength of your muscle is increased, whether by  working out, bio-engineering or random mutation, then a larger,  heavier, faster bullet will be required to penetrate it.

Superhero stories can belong to either the sci-fi or the fantasy  genre.  The difference can be illustrated by comparing early  Superman stories (where his fairly reasonable super-strength is  given a far-fetched scientific explanation) with the planet  lifting, x-ray sighted, ice-breathing, light-speed travelling  Superman of later years, who clearly is a fantasy figure.  But  whether the powers in question are given a scientific or fantastic  context, an examination of the physics of such superpowers would  usually reveal that either the practise of the powers or their  explanations contradict the laws of physics.

For instance,  Superman's strength is caused by coming from  Krypton, a planet with a much higher gravity than Earth.  This  might possibly account for the earliest Superman feats where he  lifts cars, but could he lift a planet like Earth (which he has  done) weighing 5,980,000,000,000,000,000,000 metric tons?  Very  generally, if you assume a healthy young guy like Kal-el  (Superman's name on Krypton) can lift his own weight, he would have  to weigh 5,980,000,000,000,000,000,000 metric tons on Krypton.   This would mean that Krypton would be a star of greater mass than  our sun, with nuclear fusion occurring as a result of the massive  gravity.

Essentially, even if you can accept the possibility of such  hypothetical mutations, you cannot hypothetically suspend the laws  of physics. Superman would have to eat an impossible amount of  carbs to create enough energy to achieve such a feat as lifting an  ocean liner.   In the context of the original question, being shot  while wearing a bulletproof vest may not result in being penetrated  by the bullet, but as the force of the impact blows you through a  shop window into the path of a bus, the final thought that runs  through your brain might be that you wish you had paid attention in  physics class the day they discussed Newton's laws of motion.

Even in the world of comic books physical superpowers are somewhat  limited. Super-villains realise that defeating superheroes is as  easy as creating access to more and more powerful weapons.  Look at  Batman - a non-mutated regular human who achieves superhuman crime- busting results using superior yet plausible technology and  intelligence.  The latest Bat-shield must be the equal of the  Joker's latest weapon - a typical characterisation of an East vs West  arms race which is a mainstay of comic books.   This prompts the  thought that the hypothetical physical advantage proposed in the  original question is irrelevant when you consider that the real  life arms race on Earth has already produced weapons that could  easily destroy every superhero in the sci-fi canon.  Besides, the  most important life preserving characteristic that Batman possesses  is the most regular thing about him - his anonymity.

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