Sunday, September 6, 2009

Just How OLD is the Flash?


I was watching Spider-Man 2 on TV recently, and thought back to the other superheroes I enjoyed when I was younger. One of my favorites was the Flash; specifically, the Wally West version.

But one thing always bothered me: Just how old was he?

I don't mean how long its been since the character was created (the first Flash comic appeared in 1940), or how old he physically appeared to be (Wally West, like most superheroes, was supposed to be perpetually in his mid-to-late 20s.) But rather: how much subjective time has he lived through?

The Flash's main power, of course, is speed. He can do everything and anything fast. He can react and think at speeds no human--or too many other superhumans, even Superman--can match. And therein lies the rub.

He lives through every single action he performs at superspeed. He has to, or else he could easily end up plastering himself all over a wall at half lightspeed. He's aware of every single step he takes as much as we are of ours, even if he can take a million such steps a second.

One of the most common feats he performed in the comics was running around the globe in a handful of second or less. That's 25,000 miles. Assuming one didn't get tired or had to stop to sleep, eat, or run to the latrine, how long would that take a normal person? At a breakneck running speed of 10 mph, that's 104 days. And the Flash lives through every step, even if to us it takes only a heartbeat. That's 3 1/2 months, subjectively. In some storylines, he does something similar dozens of times. He must burn through years of subjective time every time he fights a supervillain.

But that's just an average day at the office. What about some of his more extraordinary feats? In one story, he evacuated a threatened city of a quarter million single-handedly in a few seconds. How long would that take a single person? Assuming he could carry out one to two people per trip, that's something that could take years.

In another story, he had to tune every single radio on Earth to a certain frequency in a fraction of a second. Every single radio, in every country in every city, in every home and apartment and business and military base and ship and airplane in the world. Billions of individual units. If you had to do all that on foot, you're looking easily at a centuries-long project.

Now take all this, and combine all the adventures and battles he's had throughout his comic, plus guest appearances in other comics like JLA and such.

Now once again: Just how OLD is the Flash?

He's had to have lived through thousands, if not millions, of years of subjective time. Every time he uses his superspeed to battle a supervillain, he must be burning through lifetimes of subjective existence.

Given the nature of the world he lives in, where his best friends include a shapeshifting alien telepath and a magical greek goddess, the fact that he may be effectively immortal between ticks of the clock is not really an unbelievable development. But it does raise some rather disturbing possibilities.

For example, why hasn't he gone insane? He's not only millennia old subjectively, but he's lived through most of that time doing very repetitive tasks, like running or carrying things or turning radio knobs. It would be the next best thing to sensory deprivation, and would drive even the most resilient mind bonkers. Or maybe he has gone insane many, many times over the years, only he lives in such an accelerated timeframe that he was the only one who was ever aware of it.

Second, why does he bother with human relationships? Every time he went into battle, he'd be away from his loved ones for so long according to his own perceptions it would be difficult for emotional bonds to really persist. Other writers have pointed this out, but I think in the context of his millennia-long subjective existence I think it might be especially true: most of the time he lives in a world of very slow-moving statues. The periods where he can de-speed and spend normal time with his wife and friends would only be a minuscule fraction of his total subjective existence. Would they even seem real to him after a while?

Anyway, just something to think about next time you pick up a comic book.

28 comments:

Rob A said...

Heh, you have basically stumbled across what immortality would do to anyone, there is only so much you can do, eventually you would just a a monotonous blur as days just phase away.

I would guess that Flash has family and freinds to break up monotony and prevent him from truly going mad, short unpredictable jaunts into the real world would break up the sheer dullness of repetitively finding and retuning millions upon millions of radios, even if it is just a quick peek or peck on the cheek, something to remind him why he is doing such a dull job.

though the radio feat reminds me of the Santa calculations

Also your calculations could be a bit off, Usain Bolt runs at over 20mph and he needs to be aware enough not to trip or run of of lane, I'm sure a basic running instinct is enough to keep Flash going and a wall is unlikely to just sneak up on you, I would say for a typical run you notice an obstacle about 40-100m away depending on size, given reaction times he could probably manage evasive action while only being fully aware of every fourth step.
Though again the radio feat comes into it, he would have to be aware enough to enter a home search it for radios and tune them all in.

I also think you should send this to io9 it's defiantly alike to some of the other articles they have.

scott said...

You can talk about Flash and general relativity in Part II.

James R said...

What if his reaction time is subconsciously regulated? So if he's running across the ocean, his subconscious recognizes that not much is going on in reaction time, so he consciously perceives the time as slower. If he's walking and talking with someone, he likely sees time in their frame of reference (until he needs to react to something faster, though his subconscious awareness). Then, while certain feats may have taken years, in conscious time, his home life is also perceived at a very manageable normal time.

glossygames.com said...

Staying on the topic of comic books and their plot lines. how about this: He has a separate personality. one that is aware only when flash is in fast speed mode, but to the flash this period of time does not exist or rather he forgets, for example how much of our childhood do we really remember? not much. only the most eventful aspects.
to the flash fast speed mode is like that, he technically forgets those moments. but it would be a great plot if there is an entity that is aware and remembers all those years. having technically endless time to think he grows wiser and/or mad.

so.... that's my theory, thanks for the mind opener.

Kyle said...

That is not completely correct... Flash is fast but he doesn't live his super-speed actions like we do. He can do them fast, time has nothing to do with it. I want you all who are reading this comment to take note of these following words: 'He is speeding up, time is not slowing down'. Although one of us is bound to be wrong, could be me could be you. Just pitching it out there... Food for thought...

Jeff said...

The Flash in the Kingdom Come story-line has basically forgone human contact. He lives in another plane of existence.

Also, how many calories must he consume in order to perform these feats? He would have to eat non-stop.

Anonymous said...

@Kyle
If you are moving that fast you have to start taking special relativity into account, so time from his perspective has too start slowing down. Flash Fact.

Jorge said...

@ Anon

Kyle is right. He speeds up. Time doesn't slow down.

"Wally's primary superpower is his ability to be able to control the speed of which his body vibrates and to move at super-speed which he uses primarily to run at super-human velocities" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wally_West#Powers_and_abilities

It is true that while he is moving at that speed everything around him slows down. But that doesn't mean it's always like that. He lives and ages at the same speed as everyone else.


@Jeff

Wall West specifically has to constantly eat vast quantities of food to maintain his metabolism.

Birdman said...

There are multiple flashes. Are you stupid?

Salvo said...

Well, he would experience time differently than most any time he is moving extremely fast. This is because time is actually -NOT- a constant like we usually treat it as. The true constant is the speed of light; it's just that we never move fast enough for the difference to be of any noticeable effect.

However, if we assume that The Flash spends a significant amount of time moving anywhere near the speed of light, that means that time to him (as far as he is concerned biologically) passes slower than for everyone else. Theoretically, if we sent someone at the speed of light for, say, 10 years, everyone else would have aged 10 years, but biologically the one being moved at a high velocity would have aged significantly less.

Tis said...

You are thinking of time in a human perspective.
But what is time really

Anonymous said...

When Kyle said that the "Flash speeds up, time doesn't slow down" he is both correct and incorrect at the same time. Although this is true, it has been physically proven that as one actually speeds up time does begin to slow down, for that individual object. The speed of light is a physical barrier that scientists believe we, or anything, cannot pass. As an object gets closer to the speed of light, they are obviously moving faster then anything around them, however time begins to move slower for them. In actuality, if basic laws of physics existed in the world of comics, every time the Flash sped up to the outstanding speeds he is known for, he would not age, but years and years would pass him by in the world. to check more of this info out check out
http://www.phys.unsw.edu.au/einsteinlight/jw/module4_time_dilation.htm

Juliette said...

I found this post on stumbleupon and how thought provoking!
You brought up some very valid points. This was very entertaining to read (as well as all of the passionate comments that followed, lol) :]

-Juliette WhereForArtThouRomeo

Kyle said...

Everyone is thinking too deep for this dilemma. As I said he just moves fast. Read Jorge's comment and this will hopefully be clear to you all.

Paul Lucas said...

Someone put this up on StumbleUpon? No wonder its suddenly getting a bunch of new responses. I guess I should log into SU more often...

Anyway, I wasn't really saying that time itself was altering in anyway from the Flash's powers. But rather, his --perception-- of the passage of time greatly slows down the faster he goes. That's why I kept trying to emphasize the term 'subjective time'--in other words, the passage of time solely as Flash perceives it. Its not just his physical actions but his thought processes thats speed up as well, so he can consciously direct what he's doing at superspeed.

If you could think twice as fast as you do now, wouldn't the passage of time seem twice as slow? You could think twice as many thoughts, and take twice as many actions, as anyone else in a day. Wouldn't that day seem twice as long?

Now if you could think a million times more thoughts in a day than typical person, wouldn't the day seem a million times as long to your perception? That's what the Flash seems to be doing when he's at uber speed; he's not only moving superfast, his thoughts are doing the same. When his mind clicks over to superspeed, he must be living a subjective eternity between each tick of th clock... or at least it seems that way to me.

Not that I ever expect any writer to actually take this into account with Flash's character, it would change his personality too much. But I think it would be an interesting angle to explore someday with a different speedster character.

Anonymous said...

He doesn't consciously do things in superspeed. He has superhuman reflexes. So imagine putting your hand on a hot stove. You yank it off almost instantaneously, did you perceive time slower during that time? No. Also, a study also found somewhere on stumbleupon showed that people do not perceive time slower during death-defying events. I would hazard a guess that the same principle applies with the Flash, since it's a fictional character with fictional powers. You're messing around with hypothetical hogwash, imo.

Anonymous said...

he has the speedforce or something like that... wich is a kind of a hack that makes everything normal to him, while his nemesis prof. zoom doesnt so he's insane!

i think that is ist but i've never read much about him so i can be wrong... really wrong

Shane said...

Really, because of special relativity, The Flash is going to age more slowly than the people around him. Because time is relative to speed, when traveling at speeds above .1c things are going to really slow down for him. You're right in saying that time will seem slower to him, but that also means that things like cellular decomposition and other bodily functions related to the aging process will also be "slowed down." Really, the more The Flash uses his power, the longer his natural lifespan will be.

Rob said...

So i read this open minded, flash being my favorite superhero of all time, I even currently read him. What you've said here is an amazing theory and kudos to you for thinking of it but I just want to make my own comment. He may think, act etc.. in superspeed but he lives in the same time as we do, so technically he's still human in that respect. As for his aging I might have a solution to that. Jay Garrick, the first flash, was affected by the hard water solution that he was working on, which gave him his powers. His speed powers also let him age at a very slow rate, and because of his relationship with his wife (both physical and emotional) she ages like he does, very slow. so this may be why Wally ages that way too. Just a thought.

Rob A said...

@Shane

you don't see any major effects till you hit about 0.4c, at 0.1c time is moving at about 99.5% speed

Charles said...

I think this original post has a lot more understanding of perceived time than any of the comments so far. Perceived time, however is not the same as subjective time. If we break it down to the difference between subjective time and "real" time, you can see the difference easily. I am not about to break out the actual calculations here, but just give a simple example. If we send a ship to a distant planet, say 200 light years away at 99% the speed of light, the "real time" the ship travels is very little over 200 light years. However, the occupants of that ship experience perceived time and subjective time equally. They may experience, for the sake of arguement, 20 years of subjective time. This means, they are living in a greatly slowed state of existence in relation to the rest of the universe. So they age at a slower rate.
What the Flash is doing is very different. His body is experiencing subjective time when he is speeding, so he ages very slowly. His mind however is doing the opposite. He is doing years worth of tasks in a "real time" of only seconds, during which his body ages fractions of seconds. So his "perceived" time is wildly opposite of his "subjective" time. It is really more like his power is to move the universe at light speed around him as he performs tasks from yet another universe which is experiencing a different "real time". So for fractions of a second to us, he is seeing several days or even months mentally as if his universe is a parallel speed zone. Yeah, basically, the original post has a pretty good point. Everyone else seems to be arguing in the wrong universe.

Peacetokengy said...

The Flash has always been my favorite super hero, and this article was very interesting to me. Don't forget that he can vibrate so quickly that he can manipulate the chemical makeup of his body and he can walk through walls. That makes me think he may not be too aware of his steps as he runs. If he runs fast enough, he will run right through things instead of splattering into them.

Rob said...

Yea while he is running so fast he isn't necessarily a solid body anymore. In my opinion I think he sort of becomes just moving molecules that slip through surfaces. Now that's if he's running fast enough. But also let's not forget the fact that he can run at superspeeds, see at superspeeds and comprehend at superspeeds. So even if my original theory does not work out that he becomes just moving molecules, then he can at least see the things he is running near and move himself just enough to not hit them.

Anonymous said...

Geoff Johns once wrote in a Wally West story that when Wally super-speeds he just lets his mind wander. This way instead of living through what would take years for normal people to do, it just seems like seconds to him, otherwise he would have gone insane.

Anonymous said...

This is really neat speculation. I've tried to do something like this by suggesting that to a person moving at super speed, the world around them is like looking at a single frame in a silent movie - although there are no boundaries on the frame. Everything around you is stopped, and you have no idea how anything got to where it is now. Which way is that ball moving? Is that elevator going up or down?

But I hadn't thought about the lengthening of experience that is involved. My goodness, how does Joan Garrick handle it? Jay goes out in the morning, and when he comes back an half hour later, to him he hasn't seen her for YEARS! And she still looks as young and sexy as when he left her. It's like he's a sailor getting off a ship every time he sees her.

Anonymous said...

What if he mentally experienced his super-speed as a state of timelessness? The kind of experience you hear people talk about while on psychedelics.

SirCryptic said...

I don't have anything awesome to say, I just wanted to say how awesome reading this was.

Anonymous said...

I do think about these things and appreciate the post, but in addition to what others have said about speed and time, if his power is to move fast it could simply be that his brain can work faster by instinct without his sense of time being altered. A virtuoso pianist can hit all the correct notes without having to slow down their perception of time.