Chris Claremont has written some of the most influential and far-reaching X-Men stories there have ever been, so maybe he’s earned the right to look at more modern interpretations with a skeptical and sometimes disapproving eye. If he had his way, he’d set things right – with science!
On June 14 and 15, the folks who bring us New York Comic Con every year went back to basics with Special Edition: NYC, a two-day event billed as focusing “solely on the art, creation and culture of comic books.” While lacking the scope and accompanying madness of NYCC, Special Edition still boasted convention mainstay activities such as Artist Alley and publisher panel discussions.
Marvel’s “Next Big Thing” panel from Special Edition: NYC
Claremont spoke of his Nightcrawler ongoing series, which examines how the newly-revived title character adjusts to the changes that have occurred since his death. Claremont jokingly (?) admitted he was unaware that Charles Xavier himself is currently deceased, and offered his opinion on another recent bit of an X-Men story.
In an issue the identity of which Claremont could not remember, Cyclops falls out of a speeding airplane, much as he and his brother Havok did as a child. He yells for Emma Frost or even the departed Jean Grey to save him, but Claremont thinks the now-grown X-Men strategist should know better than to panic.
“Scott, don’t you have something that you can shoot at the ground to slow your fall?”
What if Cyclops didn’t have a parachute, or know how to use his optic blasts?
Crunching the Numbers
Let’s start with what we know. It’s hard to pin down just how fast a person has to be falling to be killed when striking the ground, as it’s dependent on things like body positioning and nature of the surface, but a 1983 article from the Journal of Pediatric Surgery found that about half of all children that fall from heights of four to five stories don’t survive. We’ll assume Scott is mildly unlucky but still more rugged than your average toddler, so it’ll take a 50-foot drop to snuff him out.
Knowing the acceleration of a body due to gravitational attraction near the Earth’s surface, we can plug in that distance to find that it would take Scott 1.25 seconds to fall from a height of 50 feet. By definition, that’s a speed of a little more than 27 mph. Let’s call that the minimum velocity needed to do the deed.
So how fast would Cyke be traveling after falling from a plane? Assuming he jumped from the average skydiving height of 12,500 feet, air resistance would cause him to reach terminal velocity in about 12 seconds, 1,500 feet or so into the fall. Terminal velocity is the point at which the drag force is enough to prevent an object from accelerating as it falls, and is about 122 mph for a person facing the ground flat. More than four times the speed needed to extinguish the X-Men’s fearless leader.
Skydiver with a different kind of visor
Let’s say Scott weighs about 160 lbs. – they don’t call him “Slim” for nothing. Then by using Newton’s second law of motion, F=ma, we can show that he’d have to exert a force of over 3,000 Newtons if he wanted to slow his speed to 27 mph more or less instantaneously (within about a second). That’s more than four times the force needed to cause major spinal cord injury, according to a 1975 study by the University of Virginia.
Potentially deadly, and also in the wrong direction.
I Don’t Know About That One
While we’ve been talking about Newton’s second law, it’s really the third law – that every action has an equal and opposite reaction – that makes this crazy idea work. Of course it doesn’t seem to apply when Cyke’s on solid ground, or he’d be blowing himself backward every time he opened his eyes. Comics!
And while he got this one right, I’m not sure Claremont’s justification is very persuasive.
“If the A-Team can slow themselves down with a tank, Cyclops can use his optic blasts!”
Firing a tank straight down to slow your fall? I don’t know about that one.
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