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Yesterday, we discussed going “out of phase” and falling to a horrible doom at the centre of the Earth.

Today, I want to talk about superpowers.

I have often seen Superman catch falling people mere inches from the ground.  At that height there isn’t enough space for him to absorb the kinetic energy without killing them. I’m not the only one to notice this:  Ben Tippet’s Unified Theory of Superman also mentions the problem, in addition to being a pretty entertaining read.

Now, there are ways of getting around the problem.  If Superman’s invulnerability extends a few inches from his body, then anyone he catches would be automatically protected from the damage of a sudden stop.  This has the added advantage that it protects his clothes, explaining why they don’t burn off during fiery rescues.

But wait, you say.  What about when he punches people?  Wouldn’t they be protected from damage too?

Yes, they would.  But only in the instant of the punch – they have no protection from being thrown into a wall, and it is that which causes them harm.

As you can see, some scientific problems can be worked around with the suitable application of other science.*  All it requires is a little creative thinking – and that’s what we all claim to be good at, right?


* Whistles innocently and hopes nobody noticed that auras of invulnerability extending a few inches from the body aren’t actually very scientific.

The trouble with science is that sometimes it gets in the way.  Take for example a popular science fiction trope – going “out of phase”.  In essence, the protagonist has a gadget or a power caused by radiation or some similar thing, and they become able to pass their hands through solid objects.  Sometimes nobody can see them, sometimes it only works when they want it to.

Pretty useful, right?  You can stick your head through walls to check what’s on the other side, get into places that are locked, and if you’re invisible you can listen to all sorts of conversations that you shouldn’t.

However, the problem with it was ably demonstrated by “Wormhole X-treme”, an episode of Stargate SG-1 in which Martin Lloyd, an alien TV producer, has started a show based on the secret government project.  In this scene, one of the actresses is questioning him and the director about her character’s plot.

REESE Ah I’m having a little trouble with Scene 27. It says that I’m out of phase which means I can pass my hand through solid matter or I can walk through walls.

DELUISE Yeah. Cause you’re out of phase.

MARTIN Exactly.

REESE How come I don’t fall through the floor?

Martin and Peter stop. They look at each other and then back to Reese.

MARTIN We’re gonna have to get back to you on that one.

Floors (and ceilings) are made of matter.  If you can’t interact with it, then one of two things should happen.  Either gravity still affects you, and you fall to the centre of the Earth, where you are trapped forever, slowly starving to death (because you can’t interact with the hot magma on the way, so you don’t die, and you can’t interact with food either), or gravity doesn’t affect you, in which case you go spinning off into space as the Earth continues its orbital path.

In either case, the outcome is not good for you.


A person lying in a fMRI machine has controlled a robot hundreds of miles away using the power of thought alone.

The controller was in Israel, and the robot was in France.  So far, they have only tested it on healthy people – the ultimate aim, of course, is to allow people who have no mobility to get out and about.  Allowing people to visit friends in other countries without leaving home would be a nice bonus.

Apparently the controller really felt like he was there – it is notoriously easy to convince people that other bodies are theirs, by fooling the senses.  Even better; the system works in almost real-time, and is improving all the time.  Next up is hearing and talking, probably followed by the sense of touch.

Imagine a world where instead of bus stations we have avatar stations – you go there, pay your avatar-fare, and connect; suddenly you are in another city, another country entirely.

Let’s go further – once the technology is improved further, everyone could have a connector in their home, like a TV or a phone.  This could be the teleconferencing of the future.  Who knows, maybe we could even get it working to another planet!

Scientists working on the Voyager program have received further data which suggests the probe is close to crossing into interstellar space.

This seems like an ideal time to do a quick review of Voyager’s history.

In The Beginning

Image: NASA –
(Slightly, ahem, amended)

The two Voyager spacecraft launched in 1977.  Voyager 2 actually launched before Voyager 1, but was on a slower trajectory.  Voyager 1 reached its target first.

The original targets were Jupiter and Saturn, with the unusual planetary alignment at the time meaning that they could use the gravity of Jupiter to send them on towards Saturn.  Voyager 2 was then sent on towards Uranus and Neptune.

Voyager 1 could have been sent to Pluto, but it was decided that a closer look at Titan was more important, so it made a little detour and took some pretty pictures instead.

You can go here to see pretty pictures.

The two Voyager probes discovered a multitude of things between them, most of which are not independently interesting.  If you’re into astrophysics and want to know more, go here.

One snippet that did interest me was this one:

The Voyagers found aurora-like ultraviolet emissions of hydrogen at mid-latitudes in the atmosphere, and auroras at polar latitudes (above 65 degrees). The high-level auroral activity may lead to formation of complex hydrocarbon molecules that are carried toward the equator. The mid-latitude auroras, which occur only in sunlit regions, remain a puzzle, since bombardment by electrons and ions, known to cause auroras on Earth, occurs primarily at high latitudes.

Complex hydrocarbons and a puzzle, you say?  Now I have this absurd mental image of some aliens hiding under a helium cloud saying “Those pesky Earthlings have sent another spaceship to look at us again.  It’s getting quite annoying, I wish they’d just leave us alone!”

The Science Bit

When most people think of the solar system, they think this:

  • Mercury (tiny, hot),
  • Venus (bad atmosphere, also hot),
  • Earth (yay us!),
  • Mars (not made of mars bars, alas),
  • asteroids,
  • Jupiter (very large, has spots),
  • Saturn (with rings),
  • Uranus (childish jokes),
  • Neptune (maybe blue? or was it green?),
  • Pluto (very cold).

It turns out that Pluto isn’t a planet.  It’s a dwarf planet, and it’s not even the largest one.  That would be Eris, which was originally designated the tenth planet before the discovery of several more objects in the area meant that people had to actually define “planet”.  So now Pluto and Eris are dwarf planets, and millions of adults have to re-learn the solar system.

That’s not the end of the story, though.  The solar system doesn’t end at the last planet (or dwarf planet).

The solar system is divided into the Inner Solar System (from the Sun through to the Asteroid Belt), the Outer Solar System (Jupiter through to Neptune), and the Trans-Neptunian Region.  The trans-Neptunian region contains the Kuiper Belt and Scattered Disc (lots of dwarf planets and a bunch of ice, mainly).  After that comes some mostly empty space, and in that region, somewhere, is the “end” of the Solar System.

This model has recently been proven wrong – there is no bow shock. As far as I can tell, nobody has come up with a better model yet, though. We’ll just have to wait for Voyager to get there!
Image from

But what is the end?  There is no line drawn through space, no defined point where the solar system ends.  The shape of it all is defined by solar winds and solar gravity.  The solar wind travels outwards until it meets the interstellar wind.  The point they meet is the “termination shock”, and after that is a region of slower moving, more turbulent wind, called the heliosheath.  The end of the heliosheath, where the solar winds stop, is the heliopause, and is the beginning of interstellar space.

The termination shock is roughly 94AU from the sun – two to three times as far as Pluto, and the heliopause is further away again.  To get to the end of the Solar System is a very long way indeed.

Where Are The Voyagers Now?

Since the 1990s, Voyager 1 has been the furthest man-made object from Earth, and it looks likely that this will remain the case for quite some time.  It crossed Termination Shock in December 2004, and is currently in the heliosheath, 18 billion km from Earth.  Just pause for a moment and consider that number.  Eighteen billion kilometres.  Boggles the mind, doesn’t it?

When it passes the heliopause then Voyager 1 will officially be in Interstellar Space.

Scientists are expecting to see some changes in the readings Voyager sends back at that point.  The BBC reports that:

In the last three years, Voyager has seen a steady increase in the number of cosmic rays entering its two high-energy telescopes, but in the past month the counts have jumped markedly.

The cosmic ray count is one of three indicators Nasa is using to determine when the probe has moved to interstellar space.

The second is a change in the intensity of the energetic particles Voyager detects around it coming from our Sun.

The number of these hits is declining, but not dramatically so, which should happen when Voyager leaves the region of space dominated by our star.

A third indicator will be a change in the direction of the magnetic field lines. These are expected to undergo a major reorientation when Voyager breaks into interstellar space.

Voyager 2 is taking a slightly different path.  In December 2007 it sent back data that suggested the Solar System is not symmetrical.  It has also reached the termination shock, around 10 billion miles from where Voyager 1 crossed it.

Onwards to the Future!

The Voyager probes are powered by nuclear reactors, and these should continue producing power for 10 to 15 years.  During this time the amount of electricity generated will slowly decrease, and more and more of the instruments will have to be turned off.  After the last one is gone, Voyager will continue on alone, a silent tribute to the marvels of human ingenuity.

Some students have examined the physics behind Batman’s cape (the one from Batman Begins, which goes rigid when a current is passed through it).  They were hoping to discover whether he could actually fly using it.

The conclusion?

Image Credit: Trajectory of a Falling Batman, by D.A. Marshall, T.O. Hands, I. Griths, and G. Douglas

He could fly almost twice as far as he does in the film – around 350m if he jumped from a building 150m tall.  Alas, when he landed he would be moving too fast and would become “a little bit splattered”.  He would be better off with larger wings.

Do physics problems like this annoy you when you discover them in novels and films, or do you just happily suspend your disbelief?

It is truly amazing what modern medicine can do.  A teenager in the US survived having a spear shot through his brain.  He can still sit up and speak, although they don’t yet know how his memory is affected.

What next?  Will decapitation become reversible?

It’s an interesting article, which needs no real explanation.  Go read it.

Can walking power everything?

Researchers at Pavegen have created floor tiles that create electrical charge when walked on.  They’ve installed four tiles in a school in Kent, and are testing them for robustness.  Over a thousand people walking about on them every day should quickly show if they are up to the task.

Each tile is connected to a bulb, which lights up when you walk on the tile, but the potential is easy to see.  Put them in as the flooring in a shopping centre, or the London underground, or even on streets, and connect them to whatever needs charging.

Alas, the technology isn’t yet producing enough to power the world – the average person’s lifetime footfalls would power a normal household for about three weeks – but they’re still working and every little helps, right?

In the future, I expect these things to be everywhere.  Every floor in every building, so every footstep would create power.  Adaptations could be attached to doors – every time we open a door we create power – or beds – for those of us who wriggle during the night.

Cloaking idea traps a rainbow

Researchers have trapped a rainbow – slowing light to a near-stop – in an array of 25,000 “invisibility cloaks”, each smaller than a hair’s breadth.

We shall leave aside for the moment the fact that their definition of “near-stop” is not the same as mine, consisting as it seems to of separating the light into its constituent colours.

In essence, they have arranged some tiny lenses in an array, creating a tiny cloaked area in the centre.  You can’t see what’s there, because the light is bent around it by the lenses. The rainbow effect comes from slowing some of the light more than the rest.

If we can slow light down, does this mean that FTL travel is easier than we thought?  It wouldn’t help us actually get anywhere faster, but if we slow light down enough, we could go faster than it.

In the shallow waters of Gijon harbour, in northern Spain, a large, yellow fish cuts through the waves.

But this swimmer stands apart from the marine life that usually inhabits this port: there’s no flesh and blood here, just carbon fibre and metal.

This is robo-fish – scientists’ latest weapon in the war against pollution.

The fish-shaped robot can swim in shallow water and weedy water, which would normally snag on propellers, and contains sensors to hunt down pollution.  The advantage is that it can be left in the harbour all the time – far better than testing the water once a month.  And with live data-streaming to its control centre, leaks and illegal dumpings can be spotted and fixed in record time.

Not only that, but these fish have teamwork down pat.  They use acoustic signals to communicate with each other, and use AI to find the source of the pollution.  Not advanced, general AI, I hope, because otherwise they might rise up and overthrow their creators.

Current problems include the cost (£20,000 per fish!) and the fact that they need to be recharged every 8 hours.  But the researchers expect to have those problems fixed soon.  So, next time you have fish for dinner, make sure you check it for wires and sensors!

The Author

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something martial artist who runs two Brownie packs and works full time. She somehow still finds time to write.

Her favourite genres are near-future and alternate world science fiction and fantasy.

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