Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Wil McCarthy over at the Sci-fi Channel wrote an article about the science of the Silver Surfer, soon to be featured in the new Fantastic Four movie. This is where I kind of geek out, but I liked the article. Unfortunately it doesn't sound as if the movie does justice to the character, though this article isn't actually a review. Anyway, like I sometimes do, I am going to completely steal the article and paste it here. So, I'm feeling lazy.
Science of the Silver Surfer
By Wil McCarthy
The sport of surfing—first recorded by Western historians in 1779—originated in the islands of Polynesia and reached its full premodern expression in Hawaii, where it was an important and integral part of the native culture. It usually involved a 3-meter-long slab of smooth, solid wood, with no fins or other steering apparatus, on which the riders would stand or lie prone while the waves carried them to shore.
More importantly, the sport was practiced by scantily clad men and women of all classes, making it a uniquely fine social mixer that no doubt kept the islands' gene pools churning and vigorous. For this reason, European missionaries banned the practice during the 1800s, after which it enjoyed only sporadic expression until the early 20th century, when it underwent a global renaissance that continues to this day. The basic concepts of surfing have been generalized to other environments as well, so that we can now enjoy snowboarding, skateboarding, wake boarding, wave pools, stationary surfing, river surfing, wind surfing, kite surfing and even channel surfing.
One thing we can't do, though, is ride a surfboard through the vacuum of outer space. Fortunately, on June 15 we can experience that thrill vicariously, thanks to The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. Writer Mark Frost and director Tim Story have returned to their Fantastic Four stomping grounds, joined this time by veteran Simpsons writer Don Payne to—for better or worse—bring more humor to the franchise. Lest we forget, though, the title character was actually dreamed up in 1966 by comic-book legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and throughout his checkered career the spit-shined "Sentinel of the Spaceways" has been cast in a variety of styles, from introspective and groovy to allegorical and millennial—to cold, sinister and downright apocalyptic.
Catching the cosmic wave
The Silver Surfer—a chrome-plated angel of destruction, devoid of human empathy and amped up with something called the Power Cosmic, was created by a godlike and very hungry being named Galactus (aka the Devourer of Worlds, the Ravager of Planets) to serve as his herald, henchcreature and all-purpose minion. In the story, the Surfer catches a wave to Earth to inform humanity that they're scheduled to be the next course in Galactus' never-ending cosmic feast. Not evil per se, Galactus is apparently a survivor of the Big Crunch following a previous Big Bang, and is thus older than the universe itself. Could this mean he's not subject to the same physical laws as the rest of us? Maybe, maybe not, but either way his energy is apparently woven so deeply into the fabric of the universe that we literally cannot exist without him. Conversely, Galactus can't continue to exist without consuming whole planets full of intelligent beings. This seems like something he might feel bad about, but fortunately he experiences no more remorse—or indigestion!—than we do from eating the live bacterial cultures in yogurt. Yum.
In the movie, the Surfer seems to have shed most of the internal conflicts that let him grow a human personality. He's not much of a herald, either, but simply races around the world mashing holes in things and otherwise wreaking havoc. Which seems a bit redundant, if the whole planet is about to be destroyed by a god, but what the heck. Anyway, he's got a reflective skin that makes him essentially indestructible. He can defy gravity and pass through solid objects and has no need for air, water, food or sleep. He has superior senses as well and is able to see objects of any size, from the cosmic to the subatomic.
The guy gets around, too. The Fantastic Four have a cool new ride in this picture—a nuclear-powered flying convertible called the Fantasticar that can fly at 500 mph and separate into four separate flying machines. But how can that measure up against the powers of an alien demigod? The Silver Herald has a headstone-shaped miniature starship that can move in response to his thoughts, exceed the speed of light and completely overcome the laws of both Newton and Einstein. It's immune from inertia, for one thing, so the Surfer has no trouble hanging ten at any acceleration.
How possible is any of this? At first glance, not very. First of all, I have to wonder how he sees anything at all when his eyes are perfect mirrors. They ought to reflect away all the light that hits them, like the world's most perfect set of welding goggles. He can also absorb and emit energy of almost any form, which again is at odds with his chromy appearance. Good emitters, like good absorbers, are usually black. I'm also not aware of any materials that are—or ever could be—as strong as the Surfer's skin appears to be, and as for the acrobatics and the high-speed travel, hey, where does all that energy come from?
But I do have a theory.
Measuring the matter of the man
Quantum physics teaches us that the vacuum of empty space isn't really empty at all but pervaded by an enormous energy reservoir called the Zero Point Field. If the Silver Surfer is able to tap into this energy source—essentially cooling off the entire universe by a tiny amount every time he lifts a finger—it would explain an awful lot about his abilities. This should have the effect of "thinning out" the vacuum and increasing the speed of light in the Surfer's vicinity, so it's actually the sort of testable prediction Reed Richards—aka Mr. Fantastic—could confirm in his laboratory.
Also, what if his skin isn't made of atoms and molecules at all, but is actually some sort of perfectly reflective spacetime barrier, akin to the edge of the screen in an old-fashioned game of Pong? If the Surfer's body is essentially a programming glitch in the information fabric of the universe, it might well be impossible to destroy, at least with the sorts of weapons human beings—and mutants—can bring to bear. Also, if it could reflect gravitational energy as well as photons, that would explain why he's so light on his feet, and it even suggests an explanation for his talent of sliding through buildings without damaging them. I.e., he isn't a solid object at all.
Finally, I have to observe that objects are free to travel at the speed of light if—and only if!—they have no mass. If we looked inside the Surfer's silver skin, I suspect what we'd find is ... nothing. If the Surfer is as hollow as the Tin Man of Oz, then even the Zero Point Field itself may roll off his back, leading to a phenomenon called the Casimir effect, which would allow energy and information to be manipulated inside him in "impossible" ways.
All this is very bad news for humanity, if you think about it, because while the Surfer could probably destroy the Earth all by himself, he's ultimately just a tiny appendage of the cosmic nightmare that is Galactus. Needless to say, anyone as smart as Dr. Doom would do well to cut a deal, while keeping in mind that it's hard to get blood from a stone, and even harder to communicate with a mirror. Still, a pretty face has a power all its own, and sometimes the least human characters are capable of the greatest—and most surprising—compassion.