Devoted fans of any field love to debate, and among the things they love to debate are hypothetical questions. Would the 1927 New York Yankees beat the 1998 Yankees? Which year was better for film: 1939 or 1973 or 1982? Who would win a heavyweight title bout: Muhammad Ali or Rocky (Marciano, not Balboa)? And a perennial favorite of comic book fans: Who is faster, Superman or the Flash?
This last one is easy: the Flash. After all, they have run at least seven races, and they tied twice, with the Scarlet Speedster winning five. (And, as the Flash has noted, those two races that ended in a draw were for charity events). But recently a different, less obvious hypothetical question has been raised in an on-line forum (www.quora.com) that connects the DC comics Fastest Man Alive to the king of the African nation of Wakanda. That is, could the Flash vibrate his hand through the Black Panther’s vibranium suit? Of course, both the Flash and the Black Panther are heroes in their respective comic book universes, and there would be no reason for the Flash to try to harm the Black Panther. But given that vibranium has the ability to absorb all external vibrations – could even the Crimson Comet vibrate through such a suit?
Some background, or Flash Facts, if you will. In Showcase no. 4 in 1956, police scientist Barry Allen was struck by lightning while simultaneously being doused with the contents of a bookshelf full of various chemicals. Rather than suffering permanent neurological damage he gained the ability to run at super-speed. Donning a sleek red and yellow costume and calling himself the Flash, Allen fought for justice using his many new super-powers. In addition to secondary powers necessary for an effective use of super-speed (such as super-acceleration, super resistance to air-drag, super-metabolism), the Flash also had the ability to independently control his body’s vibrations, with which he could ‘phase’ through solid walls.
Here I must don my physics professor hat, and protest that while the Flash can indeed run through solid objects, he does so not by matching his vibrations to those of the object. Anything that is not at a temperature of absolute zero has some internal kinetic energy (in fact, temperature is simply a bookkeeping device to keep track of the average energy per atom), and if the atoms are held in fixed positions, as in a solid wall, then this energy manifests as the atoms vibrating back and forth about their average position. Your own atoms vibrate with a frequency that corresponds to your body temperature of 98.6° Fahrenheit. If a wall were also at this temperature, its atoms would vibrate with this same frequency, but don’t try walking through it, unless the door is open.
So, if the Flash can’t vibrate through solid objects via his mastery of his interval molecular vibrations, how does he run through walls? (I’ve seen him do it on TV and in the comics, and they couldn’t show it if it weren’t true!). I would argue that he makes use of a phenomenon termed quantum mechanical tunneling.
Quantum mechanics was developed by physicists about 100 years ago in order to understand the behavior of atoms and how they interact with light, and one of the surprising assumptions made, which was later experimentally verified, is that there is a ‘matter-wave’ associated with the motion of any object, whether it is an electron, or a red-garbed superhero. For electrons inside an atom, this wave is about the size of an atom, and is impossible to ignore, while for people or automobiles, this wave is millions of times smaller than an atomic nucleus, and is impossible to detect. Quantum mechanics predicts that one aspect of this wave-like nature for matter is that there is a probability for the wave to be transmitted through a solid barrier, and for the object to show up on the other side. While this is termed ‘tunneling’ no hole or tunnel is created in the barrier. As crazy as this sounds, tunneling diodes in your cell phone and magnetic hard drive routinely make use of this phenomena in order to function. The greater the kinetic energy of an object, the larger is the probability that it can wind up on the other side of a barrier. Thus if the Flash were to run, or just move his hand, fast enough, he could increase the probability of tunneling to near 100%, and would appear to ‘phase’ through the solid barrier.
So, while the Black Panther’s suit would indeed absorb the excess vibrations of the Flash’s hand moving rapidly back and forth, the Tornado Titan could move his hand forward so fast that it behaved like a macroscopic quantum object. When an object tunnels through a barrier, it is not technically inside the barrier (just on one side of the barrier and then on the other side – yeah, quantum mechanics is weird), and thus there is no energy for the vibranium suit to absorb. Fortunately in either comic book universe it would be hard to find two more honorable and decent heroes than the Flash and Black Panther, and this question will remain, thankfully, hypothetical.