Superhero Puzzle #161 Why can’t Reed Richards stretch his hair?

Hey there, yes you! — If you can turn this post into a funnier one then I’ll donate $1 to your favourite charity.  Otherwise this will turn into a biology lesson, so quick with the joke …, ohhh, too late, here comes the lesson!

Comic book background

Reed Richards - Mr Fantastic

Is it “Richards” or “Richard”?  Forgive my slack research, I’m writing this extemporaneously ok!

Reed Richards is MR Fantastic of the Fantastic Four superhero team.  he is a brilliant scientist, who, along with his astronaut colleagues, experienced a supposedly lethal dose of radiation on a space mission, only instead of killing them it mutated their DNA, giving them each unique super-powers.  His fiancé Sue Storm gains force field manipulation ability, allowing herself to surround herself by force fields, one type of which can render her invisible.  That’s the power I’d want out of the four of them.  Her brother Johnny Storm gets the ability to become a living solar flame, and along with it the ability to fly from the propulsion of the flame energy.  Their friend Ben Grimm gets the only permanent configuration, which is a body of solid rock-like material, making him super-strong and invulnerable to bullets and other explosives.  Reed gets the ability to stretch his body to an unlimited degree, giving him the nickname of “Mr Stretch”, but out of respect he is called “Mr Fantastic” since he is the brains behind the team.

Possible Answers

This one is for biology geeks.  The mundane answer is that Richards never tries to stretch his hair.  A scientific explanation is that hair consist of basically dead cells.  So how come hair grows?  It doesn’t really, the hair collagen fibres remain knotted and platted together, and it’s only at the base of a hair follicle that living cells actually excrete the collagen, this pushes a hair out of the follicle, making it seem as if it’s alive, when it’s not.

Here’s an obligatory question for science enthusiasts who like a bit of fantasy.  How would you explain Reed Richards’ superpower using conventional science?

I’ve never read a good explanation, so I had the following thoughts.  Maybe readers can contribute better ideas or improvements.  I hope school teachers use such fantasy in practical classroom lessons for students who might be interested in learning their science this way from time to time.

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Well, it’s got to be in the elasticity and cohesion forces in Richard’s cells.  He is still human, capable of conceiving a baby with Sue Storm (yes, they get married and are devoted to each other).

If we assume Richard’s cannot stretch his hair then it’s probably because he can only super-stretch living cells.

If we assume the source of their superpowers was the identical radiation accident, then Richards’ body probably has a similar ability to Sue Storm’s of manipulating force fields around him, but his ability seems to be limited to within his cells, since he never exhibits the ability to stretch other objects, only himself.

So Richards has an innate sensory ability linked to his thoughts of generating extended force fields throughout his body, but restricted to his living cells.  His cells therefore act as kind of super-force vectors, maintaining cohesion even when pulled far apart.

Richards never seems to need to stretch all the way around the planet, and we are not certain of the limits to his stretchiness, so that’s a tricky puzzle, which we can return to a bit later when we think about the nature of the way he controls the cohesive forces.

The amazing thing is that he seems incapable of snapping.  A crocodile could tear at his arm or leg and spin it around in it’s vice-grip to no avail.  The crocodile would just get dizzy, and Richards would simply stretch to accommodate the crocodile bite and thus feel no pain.  This is because along with stretching he never feels the pain of it, so his nerve cells must also naturally stretch and not get activated when they are stretched.

This has to be because Richard’s body is manipulating electromagnetic fields in his body so that spacetime distortions are naturally conformally accommodated, so that to us it looks as though for all practical purposes his body is stretched and deformed, when in fact his cells are all still in perfect conformation.

This kind of deformation of objects is the mathematical study of topology.  but topologists do it with abstract spaces and numbers, not with physical objects or living systems.  To deform a living system to such extremes as Richards’ can experience and survive with no difficulty or obvious stresses is outside the domain of mathematicians.  It is a biophysics puzzle.

However, it makes some sense to suppose Richards’ deformations are topological.  So he cannot actually mix up his bodies cells like in a blender.  They all remain connected in exactly the same order, it’s only their space extents which alter geometrically, not their topological configuration.  When two or more objects are topologically invariant this means they can be stretched and squeezed into the same shape without any ripping or tearing or cutting and re-pasting.

but Richards’ is not the pure Topological Man, since he cannot pass his body through himself.  Topological deformations in mathematics are allowed to ghost through themselves.  Not so in real physics topological deformations, so in fact Richards is not the Topological Man, he is more accurately described mathematically as the Diffeomorphic Man, since diffeomorphisms are the types of physically realistic deformations that can turn smooth objects into morphed smooth objects without ripping or cutting.

But these are just words.  Topological.  Diffeomorphic.  Conformal Invariance.  All these terms have precise mathematical meanings, but they do not help us much in understanding Reed Richards’ condition.

What we need is a bridge between mathematics and physics.  And this is provided by the theory of fundamental forces.  At a certain level of physical description all fundamental forces arise from the influence of fields which pervade all of space an time.  The fields exist everywhere, even though their intensity in certain places (localised regions) can be near zero momentarily, in other places their intensity can be enormous.  What generates force fields are charged particles.  And what experiences a force whenever their is an intense field nearby is another charged particle.

Mathematically the fields are smoothly varying, even though over small distances they can appear to change drastically, there is always a smaller region over which the field varies smoothly from small intensity to high intensity (or negative value to positive value sometimes).  A negative field value as opposed to a positive value is not simply a mere calibration issue, it corresponds to a reversal of the force felt by any particular charged particle.

So this is the connection we need to understand Reed Richards’ superpower.  Also, it should help explain Sue Storm’s power as well and maybe also Johnny Storm’s.  But Ben Grim’s orange-rocky super-strength power is just too weird for me to explain without further fantasy.  We could have a go at it another day.

There is still a lot of work to be done to provide more detailed science behind Reed Richards’ stretch power and Sue Storm’s force field manipulation. It should be fun.  The key is to not get too serious, but to play around in a sensitive way with some of the laws of physics.  The good thing for most students at school is that you should refrain from too many equations, since they will usually destroy  the scifi fantasy, but to allow a little mathematics into the play so that you can say that you’ve really done the best you can to justify the scifi.  That’s the game, a’ight.

Some further things to consider for instance are:

  • How they (the fantastic Four) use their mind to control the powers.  (This question can apply to most superheros, e.g., how Superman can use heat vision or X-ray vision, but not all the time).
  • What limits might there be to Richards’ stretchiness, or is there some way scientifically you can think of that would allow him to be infinitely stretchy?

Although this sort of musing seems like fantasy, I hope you can appreciate that it’s a good way to teach science too.  Science is not all just about uncovering facts and performing methodology and getting things clinical and precise, in fact that’s hardly what science is about at all, that’s only the polished published book version of science.  In everyday practice, to be a good scientist, you need a good imagination and whatever helps stimulate your imagination can potentially help you become a better scientist.  All you really need to compliment a good imagination is a willingness to put your ideas to rigorous tests, and eventually learn how to make good tests.  But that’s for another time.  Today I just hope you have fun wondering about the super-powers of the Fantastic Four.

Stan Lee is one of the writers of the past century who we can truly treasure without getting too overwhelmed by literary pomp and pretension.  He wrote, and inspired other writers, for pure enjoyment.  And that’s what also makes him one of the most surprising people who I would say has had a great and yet unfathomable influence on science.  No one will ever be able to calculate his scientific worth, but for a guy who never published a single science article, and who probably never even co-authored a single non-fiction article written in earnest, I think he still could be counted as a hero of many scientists from all fields.  A remarkable accomplishment, and so much more so I think because of his influence on so many people whom he would never have met and who themselves may not even realise or consciously acknowledge his unseen influence on science.  In part, this is just a small beginning to my humble homage to Stan.  Hopefully I’ll have time to write a few more Superhero Puzzles over the next few years.   Even if it doesn’t stretch my knowledge of physics it will stretch out the fun.

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