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From Superman saga to real-life science: It's not an impossible leap

An alien, raised in secret on Earth, must decide how to use his superhuman powers.

No one expects the Superman saga to serve as a scientific treatise — but the back story for "Man of Steel," the latest reboot of the 75-year-old tale, does play off some of the latest discoveries on the final frontier. And the saga could provide a leaping-off point for future technological advances as well.

Just ask James Kakalios, who literally wrote the book on pulp-comic science, titled "The Physics of Superheroes." Superman's dazzling array of superpowers — ranging from super-strength to X-ray vision and freeze-breath — may be beyond the edge of plausibility, but Kakalios argues that merely musing over how they might work fires the imagination for more down-to-Earth inquiries.

"It's a parlor game reflecting what we do in research anyway — 'what if,' and 'what do I need to have happen for this to exist.' If you do it with superheroes, or if you do it in the real world, it's the same mental muscles that are being exercised," he told NBC News.

Kakalios noted that the first incarnation of Superman, in 1938's Action Comics No. 1, was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs' stories of "John Carter on Mars," in which an earthly adventurer took advantage of Mars' lower gravity to leap around and perform feats of seeming super strength. Comic-book writer Jerry Siegel turned that around by imagining that Superman came from a supermassive alien planet called Krypton. "We're the planet that has the weak power," Kakalios said.

So far, so good — but that's not the whole explanation for Superman's powers. The official story is that Superman's body was originally acclimated to Krypton's red sun, and is now able to soak up lots more power from our yellow sun. That gets into shakier ground. "Once you make that argument — that if the dominant wavelength shifts by 80 nanometers, that's enough to enable someone to bend steel in their bare hands and have super-breath — then you've entered the realm of fantasy," Kakalios said.

When it comes to planetology, however, Siegel and "Superman" artist Joe Shuster were ahead of their time: It's only recently that astronomers have come to the conclusion that lots of red dwarf stars may have planets, and that those planets may be as close as 13 light-years. What's more, planet hunters have proposed that super-Earths — that is, terrestrial planets more massive than our own — may well be superior when it comes to fostering life.

At the behest of DC Comics, astronomer Neil DeGrasse Tyson even pinpointed a red dwarf that could serve as a real-life stand-in for Krypton's red sun: LHS 2520, 27 light-years away in the southern constellation Corvus. It's not known whether LHS 2520 has any planets at all, let alone a Krypton-like super-Earth. But at least DC recognizes that exoplanets are no longer the stuff of pulp fiction.

Getty Images

From comics to movies, the many incarnations of Superman.

Here are a few more examples showing how superpower musings spark real-life science:

Super-suits: The Man of Steel supposedly has a body that's impervious to almost everything except Kryptonite, which led researchers at the University of Leicester to calculate what kind of muscles or skin Superman would need to stop a bullet. Surprise, surprise: The physics don't work out. Even if you could leap tall buildings, your muscles still wouldn't be dense enough to be bulletproof. And in order for skin to stop a bullet, the required density would be "unreasonably high, even by assumed extraterrestrial standards," the researchers reported. Kakalios said it'd be more plausible for Superman to rely on a super-suit woven from graphene, a real-life super-strong substance. "You wouldn't need to be bulletproof if you had something like that," he said.

Fortress of Solitude: In previous movies, Superman's Fortress of Solitude was grown from a crystal — but based on the trailers, the filmmakers behind "Man of Steel" are going for a more organic look this time around, which Kakalios likes. "It almost looks like something from the 'Prometheus' or 'Alien' films," he said. It's more plausible to imagine an organic, nanoscale, self-assembling process that could produce large carbon-based structures — or that graphene super-suit.

Manipulating mass: In a paper titled "A Unified Theory of Superman's Powers," theoretical physicist Ben Tippett proposed that all of Superman's abilities could be explained if you just supposed he had the ability to manipulate inertial mass on scales ranging up from atoms to speeding locomotives and tall buildings. Inertial manipulation is often cited in science fiction as a way to get from place to place at faster-than-light speeds — so that would explain Superman's trip from Krypton to Earth as well. Researchers have been thinking about ways to do this in real life for more than a decade. So far, they're nowhere close to a breakthrough, but who knows? If the Large Hadron Collider's studies of the Higgs boson lead to a deeper understanding of the nature of particle mass, inertial manipulation could become a reality. Or at least become more plausible.

Do you have any musings on the real-life science inspired by the Superman saga? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.