Omni Brain

How Supermans X-Ray vision works

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So how does Superman do it! He can see through buildings and clothing (he checks out Lois Lane’s underwear in Superman 1 – more on this later). Many have attempted to answer this question of the ages yet few have explored this in as much depth as J.B. Pittenger who published a study in the journal Perception back in the stone ages (1983) entitled “On the plausibility of superman’s x-ray vision”

But first, before we get into the meat of the paper, lets see what others around the InterWebs have said about Superman’s amazing seeing through underwear powers.

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In Correcting Misconceptions about Superman Lorenzo Vincent Aurelius says:

What of the other powers? Superman’s X-ray vision is not truly x-ray vision. What do you think — Superman’s eyes emit x-rays, which he uses to see with? That’s not how x-rays work. They require a source that aims the x-rays toward the receiving end, whether it be eyes or photographic film. No, Superman’s vision involves sensing energy fields that have hitherto been unidentified by human science. These energy fields surround and pervade all forms of matter, varying by density and vibratory rate, according to the density and composition of the object. In other words, Superman is seeing the subtle energy fields involved in the inter-transformation of energy into matter. His ability to distinguish those fields depends upon the “signal-to-noise ratio” between any object he is sensing and any intervening objects. Lead, being dense, has a field so dense that less-dense fields behind it are hard to distinguish. Gold has the same effect. But since people do not commonly use gold as shielding, it has not been written about. So people think, “Lead blocks x-rays; lead blocks Superman’s x-ray vision.”

Ok so we need energy fields unidentified by human science. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that the scientists of Superman’s home planet have discovered this energy field but didn’t include it in that weird crystal house/computer/whatever thing.

superman-radiation.jpgAnswerbag.com has a number of great speculations as well:

Just like rods and cones in the human eye, Superman possibly has x-ray detecting crystals like Silicon or Cadmium-Telluride in his eye that detect x-rays passing through a special lens called Kumakhov polycapillary focusing x-ray lens implanted in his eye.

The other possibility could be that x-rays get converted to normal light by a film of x-ray fluorescent material and then it is the normal work of the rods and cones like in case of the human eye.

and

Superman’s eyes actually PROJECT X-rays; depending on how much is absorbed or reflected back at him allows him to see through solif objects.

Back in the day, Superman’s “heat vision” was actually just a creative use of his X-ray vision — he would project enough X-Rays to actually melt or destroy an object.

and finally my favorite:

In today’s society, he probably couldn’t use it with all the lazy people with lead in their asses! LOL

Of course we can’t forget to see what wikipedia says about this understudied phenomenon:

The best known figures with “x-ray vision” are the fictional superhero Superman who once had a heat producing function before that power was separated as heat vision, and the protagonist of the 1963 film X (aka X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes).

At least in the first Superman movie, Superman’s X-ray vision could see through female character Lois Lane’s clothing to see the color of her underwear. This implies it had nothing to do with actual X-rays, since color is a matter of spectral properties at optical frequencies.

In the movie Superman Returns, Superman uses the X-ray vision to see into the interior of Lois Lane’s body in order to check for internal injuries.

Now that we have that all out of the way lets get onto some ‘real’ science…

Let’s start with the basic human visual system. Light propagates through the air, being partially reflected by the objects that it encounters. This light reaches our eyes and is translated into chemical responses by the rods and cones in our retinas, and then travels through various sets of neurons where it is processed in different ways, giving rise to the experience of vision. So basically we need an information source and a processor. In the case of human vision this is light and the brain. In the case of superman this becomes more complicated.

There are three basic conditions that a superman x-ray system must meet to be plausible.

1. Transparency:

The rays must be such that all objects but lead are entirely or almost entirely transparent to them. Lead is always entirely opaque to the rays.

2. Color:

The rays and processor must result in Superman perceiving the same colors as would an Earthling viewing the scene in ordinary sunlight.

3. Exclusivity:

The rays must permit Superman, but not Earthling standing in line with the reflected rays, to see through normally opaque surfaces.

These conditions lead to two clear solutions.

The first solution:
Rays are emitted by Superman’s eyes which penetrate objects and then return to his eyes.

Problems:
- x-rays penetrate lead (perhaps superman uses a different energy wave?)
- The ‘stopping problem.’ Once the rays penetrate something why do they not continue on through the next object and the next and the next. If the rays do somehow stop/are lessened after penetrating the object how do they then get back to Superman in order for him to process the signal?
- To generate color the rays emitted by Superman’s eyes have to be multifrequency so that they bounce off/are absorbed by different colors in the environment.

The second solution:
Two types of rays are emitted by superman, one to make objects transparent and the other to ‘see’

Problems:
- There is no evidence that a ray of this type could exist.
- The ‘stopping problem’ is still in effect.
- The transparency ray violates the exclusivity condition. If a ray makes things invisible then all the normal humans could see through walls as well (assuming superman shot his rays out for them). Then again if the rays made objects only transparent to a certain spatial frequency not available to human perception, lets say ultraviolet, or infrared. Then the transparency ray would not have to violate the exclusivity condition. But then color processing gets whacked.

The biggest problem of all for any theory of x-ray vision is as J.B. Pittenger says,

One fundamental problem with the plausibility of Supeman’s x-ray vision lies in its need to make objects serve, at different times, as both media and things-to-be-seen. This places rather strong requirements on the nature of the rays or on the device that processes the rays.

So why did J.B. go to all this trouble of figuring out all the problems with Superman’s vision?

The contrast between human vision and Superman’s x-ray vision can be useful in helping students understand the importance to vision of the physical nature of light and its interaction with the air and objects in the environment.

Human vision has evolved to make use of several physical properties of ‘visible’ light: over short distances it passes largely unchanged through air, thus making air nearly invisible’ it is reflected by most surfaces in the environment, thus allowing them to be visible’ and the reflection is only partial, thus structuring the light so as to provide information to the perceiver.

If you’re interested in reading the article you’ll have to head over to your university library since the article is not yet available online. If you do manage to get a digital copy I would love a copy!

Pittenger, J.B. (1983). On the plausibility of Superman’s x-ray vision. Perception, 12(5), 635-639. DOI: 10.1068/p120635

……Previously published on oftwominds…..

Comments

  1. #1 Craig
    October 5, 2009

    I don’t think that ‘the stopping problem’ would be much of a problem if there was at least partial reflection of the rays from each surface they passed through. Under this circumstance superman would be able to ‘focus’ on the different surfaces, with the others blurring out of view. Much as we do when looking at, or though, a window.

  2. #2 Winter Toad
    October 5, 2009

    As for the question of whether or not Superman’s eyes emit rays, or simply act as passive sensors, one can look at “Atom Man vs. Superman”. In that serial, Superman is tricked into using his X-ray vision on packages of inert material, not realizing that, in so doing, he is converting the innocuous material in one of the packages into plutonium.

    So, maybe Superman’s X-ray vision is really slow neutron absorption spectroscopy.

  3. #3 bobh
    October 5, 2009

    While it doesn’t solve the color problem, soft (low energy) x-ray back scatter does solve through the clothing part of the problem. I have on my wall a picture of a colleague (who will forever remain nameless) that shows a number of items under his clothing, including a ceramic pistol. TSA is planning to roll out this technology soon, my understanding is that people will be given an option to go to a secondary pat down or an x-ray scanner of this type.

  4. #4 Tacroy
    October 5, 2009

    Superman doesn’t necessarily use one vision mode all the time. For instance, if he’s trying to look through clothing, maybe he just does some super awesome image processing – structurally, almost all clothing is like a screen door except at a smaller scale. If you can gather enough photons that bounce off of skin and process it well enough, it’s theoretically possible to see through most porous materials like clothing. It’s reasonable to think that Superman, with his super-vision and super-brain, can filter out the photons that hit skin from photons that hit clothing.

    As for seeing through walls with color, who knows? Maybe x-rays passing through various dyes get diffracted in some detectable manner?

  5. #5 charlie
    October 5, 2009

    This is good stuff. Aristotle thought (some of the time) that vision worked by emanation of rays, and detected back reflection,like winter toad proposes, and Aristotle was considered a pretty smart guy. Winter toad also uses scholarship enviably, going directly to original source material. As for the reflection of x-rays that should be easy to arrange, and detect, as suggested by tacron and bobh. And let’s face it: the color of women’s underwear is a subject where imagination runs riot (see Aristotle’s de Ladies). My big question is why x-ray vision is limited to guys?

  6. #6 Anton Mates
    October 6, 2009

    Superman’s eyes actually PROJECT X-rays; depending on how much is absorbed or reflected back at him allows him to see through solif objects.

    Back in the day, Superman’s “heat vision” was actually just a creative use of his X-ray vision — he would project enough X-Rays to actually melt or destroy an object.

    Canonically, this is “the” answer. Both Pre-Crisis and Post-Crisis Superman are repeatedly described as generating actual X-rays, and the Post-Crisis version has objected to keeping a person (either Batman or Lois Lane, IIRC) under constant X-ray surveillance because it’s a cancer risk.

    Of course, as Winter Toad points out, Silver Age Kryptonians could transmute materials with their X-ray vision, which is inconsistent with the behavior of ordinary X-rays. But Silver Age Kryptonians also transmuted materials by yelling at them and by rubbing them really fast. Apparently atomic nuclei in the Pre-Crisis DCU were fragile little things.

    Oh, and as “The Kingdom” taught us, multiple Kryptonians can pool their X-ray vision to see into our world from the afterlife. Not sure what to do with that.

    At least in the first Superman movie, Superman’s X-ray vision could see through female character Lois Lane’s clothing to see the color of her underwear. This implies it had nothing to do with actual X-rays, since color is a matter of spectral properties at optical frequencies.

    Not necessarily. Superman also has microscopic vision, and may be (consciously or subconsciously) deducing the color of a material from its molecular structure.

  7. #7 Flaky
    October 6, 2009

    The stopping problem is easily solved, if Superman’s eyes send pulses of X-rays and the eyes can somehow ‘shutter’ with a specific delay so that only reflections from a specific controlled distance range are seen. Equipment employing infrared light that works like this actually exists for seeing through fog and smoke. Alternatively, if he can vary the X-ray power, he could use that equally well to control the penetration depth.

    The lead penetration problem goes away if we assume that to protect feeble humans, Superman only ever uses his X-ray vision with such power levels that it does not harm people. This would effectively prevent him from seeing through lead of certain thickness.

  8. #8 Anton Mates
    October 6, 2009

    The stopping problem is easily solved, if Superman’s eyes send pulses of X-rays and the eyes can somehow ‘shutter’ with a specific delay so that only reflections from a specific controlled distance range are seen.

    Superman thinks and moves at superhuman speeds, too, so he wouldn’t need a physical shutter mechanism; he could measure the picosecond-scale differences in arrival times between reflections from different distances. X-ray lidar!

  9. #9 rx1
    October 7, 2009

    if Superman’s eyes send pulses of X-rays and the eyes can somehow ‘shutter’ with a specific delay so that only reflections from a specific controlled distance range are seen.

  10. #10 leather handbags
    December 2, 2009

    that’s so funny

  11. #11 Bran Anderson
    December 22, 2009

    You asked for a digital copy of the article about the plausability on Superman’s Vision, saying to let you know if anyone found a copy. I have found a copy. Would you like me to send it to you?

  12. #12 daedalus2u
    March 3, 2010

    There is a problem with all x-ray mediated vision systems, air is not transparent to x-rays. Ambient air scatters x-rays considerably and would greatly reduce the resolution of any vision system.

    However, measuring the energy (at very high resolution) of returning photons would conceivably allow for deducing the chemical bonding going on in what ever is being observed. Some types of chromophores could be imaged that way. But then Superman would be able to see colors far into the IR and UV too.

    The x-ray lidar approach is the only way that microscopic vision could work too. Visible light doesn’t have a short enough wavelength to image microscopic objects using an aperture of the eye.

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    March 5, 2010

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    March 24, 2010

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  15. #15 superman
    April 12, 2010

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    April 12, 2010

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  17. #17 Tory Burch Reva Flats
    December 17, 2010

    Canonically, this is “the” answer. Both Pre-Crisis and Post-Crisis Superman are repeatedly described as generating actual X-rays, and the Post-Crisis version has objected to keeping a person (either Batman or Lois Lane, IIRC) under constant X-ray surveillance because it’s a cancer risk.

  18. #18 coco chanel purses
    January 20, 2011

    Canonically, this is “the” answer. Both Pre-Crisis and Post-Crisis Superman are repeatedly described as generating actual X-rays, and the Post-Crisis version has objected to keeping a person (either Batman or Lois Lane, IIRC) under constant X-ray surveillance because it’s a cancer risk.

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