Monday, November 8, 2010

X-ray vision. A rant.

Today being the 115th anniversary of the discovery of X-Rays, I thought I'd revive a classic post:

Since X-ray vision is one of Superman's most used powers in the Silver Age, and is therefore bound to come up time and time again in this blog, I just want to set a few things straight.

X-ray vision was created as a convenient way for Superman to locate people without tearing the roofs off of houses or crashing through walls a la Kool-Aid man. However, it soon grew in scope, becoming the source of Superman's later separately named Heat vision.

In countless issues, Superman uses his X-ray vision to fog film, irradiate things, weld things, and even recharge a dying star. I would like to say, right here and now, that X-ray vision (if it existed) DOESN'T WORK THAT WAY!!!

Look, I'm an artist not a physicist, but even I understand how X-rays work.

Superman was given X-ray vision, the power to see through solid objects (except lead). X-ray machines work by projecting low-level radioactivity or X-rays, through a solid object and onto a piece of photographic film. When the film is developed, the X-rays have created an image which shows more dense material like bone or metal (which are harder for the rays to penetrate) which may be encased in less dense material, such as flesh or wood. Since Superman is an extraterrestrial with a different physiology, it is conceivable that his vision would extend beyond the range of human sight and allow him to see other wavelengths of light or radiation (some animals can see heat, for instance) However, this would mean that Superman's eyes RECEIVE X-rays, not TRANSMIT them.

If this is the case, Superman cannot just go around fogging film and boiling water, and Heat vision is moot, or completely separate.

Now that I've got that settled, On with the blog.


  1. John S. In OklahomaNovember 16, 2010 at 9:24 AM

    Details, details... : )

    Actually the thought that keeps coming back to me regarding the X-ray vision business is that Supes HAS to be a better person than me, because I know how I would have been using the ability to see through things...

  2. Everything you said up there makes perfect sense.

    But let's assume (for the sake of argument) that Superman's vision somehow works like an x-ray version of sonar: he has to project the x-ray radiation and somehow this enables him read the "bounce-back" (or lack thereof) to see through some objects. There are all sorts of problems with this, too.

    First of, if he's going around emitting x-ray radiation all the time, anyone (at least any Earth human) who spends much time with him is probably going to end up with radiation sickness, and maybe a nice collection of tumors. Also, even if he has the ability to turn this vision on and off at will, once released, the x-ray radiation is simply going to travel right through whatever it is he wants to see, so it would be fairly easy to hide things from him without resorting to lead shielding (which would be too obvious). Just hide whatever it is inside something only slightly denser, or with a large group of items of roughly the same density.

    The ever-popular "looking at everyone naked" game wouldn't work, either. Any level of radiation that will "see" through clothing is going to go through at least the first few layers of skin and fat. He'd most likely be seeing skeletal structure, or possibly muscle tissue, if he turns it down a bit.

    I expect if Superman had been created today, he's have Magnetic Resonance Vision or something. It would definitely work better. (Still impractical though, for all the reasons you outlined above.)


  3. Great post! Not to change the subject, but as much as I love Wayne Boring's artwork (like the image above,) the proportions always seem a little...freaky.

  4. Why even bother analyzing how super powers "work"? None of them work. If it bothers you, don't read super hero stories. They are all ridiculous.

  5. Agreed.
    "X-Ray" might work at the level of "succinctly communicating the concept to the reader by means of a familiar term", but, unless X-rays behave differently in the reality of Superman, then, somebody nodded on consistency-within-the-alternate-reality.

    Perhaps unintentionally, Swan/Siegel (?) avoid much of this warranted criticism by naming Ultra Boy's similar power an indefinite "Penetra-Vision".