There are a lot of problems with super-speed. Fortunately, the few super-human characters who can genuinely fly under their own power (sic) choose not to run fast on the ground. If anything, it’s harder to stay on the ground. Therein lies the problems outlined below. Indeed, it is these problems that resulted in the original 1938 Earth 2 Superman being able to fly. After all, moving faster than a speeding bullet, 2,500 ft/sec (1,700mph), is going over twice the speed of sound, 1125 ft/sec (767 mph), it would be hard to stay on the ground. At that speed, you will take off like a rocket. After all, the Earth is only rotating at 1,000 mph and he’s moving faster than that and against inertia, unlike a bullet, can keep accelerating. Of course, there is a matter of how much distance you travel before you reach escape velocity rather than to stay in the Earth’s atmosphere than be launched into space. As Superman of either Earths doesn’t use their legs to fly, at this point we’ll have to leave them to their own devices.
There is also the little matter of having nothing in your path as you run so being super-fast isn’t as trouble free as it looks. I doubt any speedster runs at maximum velocity for very long without making a fly splatter against a windscreen seem mild in comparison. The term ‘speedster’ will be used to stay generic where necessary. In case you wondered why I selected the Earth-2 Superman as the main example is because his speed was always defined as ‘faster than a speeding bullet’. The later and more recognised Earth-1 Superman is faster than a speeding light beam – think of how long it took for him to travel to other star systems. Hardly comparable Supermen.
As commented above, the real problem is staying on the ground. Look at how a hamster rotates a spinning wheel, it barely touches the steps when the wheel exceeds the speed it’s running at. It can’t run as fast as that in a straight line and a lot of what you think is really fast is only because your eyes can’t keep up. Think of all those car movies or indeed car sports where the wheels appear to be going backwards because the film is out of sync with the motion. A train approaching will just grow in front of your eyes and equally fade into the distance as it passes you. The train hasn’t changed size throughout, only your perception of what you see in perspective. Your eyesight and judgment would be called into question as to just how fast any speedster is running and they might not be fully truthful as to how fast they are moving. Well, unless you have one of those radar tracking devices the police use and it might not be fast enough even then.
Humans are not built to be aerodynamic but, given enough speed, they will take off easily at 130mph and these speedsters are supposed to exceed that so something else must be going on. Aerodynamics for a human to take off from the ground, one has to consider their weight, the thrust forward, the drag of fighting the air and how much lift can be obtained. Anyone running below 20 stone in weight would take off. It would be difficult to do otherwise. A light aircraft can weigh about 12,500lbs (7821.25 stones), so a 192lb (12 stone) human is 65 times less so wouldn’t need as much energy to reach that kind of acceleration. The official land-speed record over one mile achieves a Mach One speed but they were forever having to make adjustments to prevent lift by down-force to keep the car on the ground.
Added to that is how much fuel or food resource eaten recently to supply the muscles with the needed energy. All that running around would still lose a lot of weight and energy unless you ate and digested a lot of high protein food regularly. What is often not shown in comicbooks is rather than the speedster arriving first, he might go off for a meal or six of high energy food, digest it and catch up with the others as they arrive. The Barry Allen Flash had the nickname of ‘Slowpoke’ for the logical reason of conserving his energy for when he needed it. He might be fast but there would be a need for them all to arrive together if they are to act as a team or he would he hanging around waiting for his team mates to arrive twiddling his thumbs super-fast. For the moment, we’ll assume it’s possible and show the problems that will limit how fast super-speed really is and stay relative to the ground.
The drag is probably what will keep the needed air to breath in front of the speedster like a bubble, as without oxygen, he won’t be running far. We never see speedsters gasping for oxygen so it might not be regular sources of energy feeding their power. The lack of weight is what really counts here. If the speedster can keep near the ground then, like the hamster, he’ll be barely touching the ground to make an impression. At least he won’t trip on any potholes in the road although passing over a trench wider than his running step might cause problems. Of course, the speedster could jump any trench encountered but he’s probably going to fast to spot them in advance.
Then there is manoeuvrability. At real speeds, it’s all too easy to go past the event you’re attending and turning suddenly will put immense strain on the tendons let alone breaking and skidding to a halt on boot leather. Friction issues only really become an issue when you approach supersonic speed but by then you would really be flying than running. Unlike normal athletes who wear little clothing when running, the costume is therefore more to conserve sweat to stay cool. You can’t afford to dehydrate and there isn’t a bottle of water table like they have in marathons. Friction when running is less of an issue. As commented above, you don’t suddenly reach maximum acceleration, your feet are barely touching the ground and you are pushing a volume of air in front of you so you’re not exactly burning up. Even those people who have reached terminal velocity from high-level parachuting don’t have friction issues.
The depiction in the comicbooks gives no indication of how long it takes to accelerate to a maximum speed or to slow down or whether the maximum speed is reached all the time. Logistically, you would definitely want to be running at a slower speed when you arrive or you’ll just run right past the battle. One would presume that with super-speed that the senses are equally as fast as the reflexes. Stopping on a sixpence, as already mentioned, is not really an option.
The problem with working out any calculations, especially aerodynamic ones in order to stay on or near the ground, is it’s hard to find as these formulas are for aircraft not for a man running very fast to work out. The most you can rely on is Force = Mass times Acceleration (F=ma). Only knowing the weight of the speedster won’t be enough. Any speeds given aren’t based on acceleration to reach that maximum velocity and there is no data for that.
Let’s go back a bit. The speed of a bullet is 2500 ft/sec (1700mph). If the Earth-2 Superman could out-run said bullet, he doesn’t have to go much faster to stop it as he might run into its intended target. If anything, he needs reflexes that fast as much as speed. But unless he’s getting in the way of a sniper’s bullet or running late (sic), Superman would get in the way early not late in the bullet’s journey at its maximum velocity. The fact he was often depicted just behind the victim might be more to do with coming to a halt than where he stopped the bullet. The only difference between him and the Flash in doing this is he wouldn’t be hurt by the bullet although undoubtedly he would have something to put in the way. Maybe that’s why the Jay Garrick Flash, also of Earth-2, wore his mercury (named after the Roman god not the element) helmet and got it in the way too fast and back on his head for anyone to notice.
Look at any American city, any running routes are an obstacle course on top of all of this. No doubt any speedster will stay on the road and run on top of car roofs in an emergency and like the hamster wouldn’t be likely to cause any damage. It does provide a credible instance that a speedster could rush up the side of any building but he wouldn’t want to stop. Coming down again would mean slowing down the effects of gravity and avoiding terminal velocity.
Lest I forget, there is also a matter of friction and high speeds would generate heat. A speedster like the Earth-1 Flash is said to have control of his molecules and how they agitate when running. Presumably, this also contributes to absorbing or deflecting any heat caused. One comparison it won’t be like is that of a crashing meteor, as it loses its outer heated material on the way down and, when crashed, is really super-cool. Anyone touching a recently crashed meteorite will get burnt but not by heat but frostbite. Certainly, a super-speed speedster has a lot of energy to get rid of but he won’t be particularly hot.
Anyone moving at super-speed isn’t likely to be muscle-bound. As anyone can see from the likes of that other slowpoke Usain Bolt, tall, lean and long legs are good for short sprints but thin and shorter is better for long-distance marathons. All the muscles would need sturdy tendons as well to survive rapid movement and braking. I doubt if being bathed in heavy water or being struck by lightning would provide the needed physiological differences.
A speedster would need a similar physique although this would make them more of a lightweight when it comes to fighting. Being hit at super-speed would be equivalent to being hit around the head with a flat fish. Many times granted but against super-humans with super-physiques, I doubt if it would make much impact. Running around your enemy rapidly is more likely to make them dizzy than deprive them of air, well not for long which would be confined like the air bubble the speedster carries with them. Even if a vacuum is created, air would quickly rush in when stopped. Put an obstacle in their way and the speedster trips up and more likely does some serious damage to himself.
Together with this, all the main senses and reflexes would also have to be super-quick as well. Swatting a fly would not only be easy but could also be kept alive by grabbing out of the air. In fact, the world around them would be moving in slow motion. Whether they can slow these senses down to speak normally would be interesting. Any mistakes and they would sound faster than an old-fashioned 45rpm vinyl record going at 750rpm or faster. A bit of a giveaway and we haven’t talked about having a normal social life with those oh so slow humans.
If anything, super-speed is an exaggerated phenomenon and not nearly as convincing in the comicbooks, films and TV series. Logistically, anyone who can run somewhere between 40 and 70 miles per hour is still going to look impressive today and the speeds demonstrated by the Six Million Dollar Man, Steve Austin, and the Bionic Woman, Jaime Sommers, is more practical than bombing around at speeds far faster than that. It might not be as fast as a speeding bullet but how often are you likely to be in the right place at the right time to stop one?
© GF Willmetts 2017
my thanks to Andy Whitaker for suggesting
I tackle this subject and although his ideas were
a little off, I think he learnt a lot of science along the way.