Chris Claremont has written some of the most influential and far-reaching X-Men stories there have ever been, so maybe he’s earned the right to look at more modern interpretations with a skeptical and sometimes disapproving eye. If he had his way, he’d set things right – with science!

On June 14 and 15, the folks who bring us New York Comic Con every year went back to basics with Special Edition: NYC, a two-day event billed as focusing “solely on the art, creation and culture of comic books.” While lacking the scope and accompanying madness of NYCC, Special Edition still boasted convention mainstay activities such as Artist Alley and publisher panel discussions.

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Marvel’s “Next Big Thing” panel from Special Edition: NYC

At the “75 Years of Marvel” panel Sunday afternoon, a few tidbits of news were delivered by moderator Nick Lowe, editor of the Spider-Man family of books. Chief among those announcements was the October arrival of a 64-page anthology anniversary special, with writing contributions from Stan Lee, Brian Michael Bendis, Len Wein and many more, and a cover by Paolo Rivera that took the artist over 120 hours to draw, he later tweeted.

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But Lowe would cut the shilling short to let veteran and superstar creators Claremont and Peter Alan David answer audience questions and riff on whatever they felt mentioning about their current projects or anything else from their accomplished careers. David noted that All New X-Factor would tie into a major crossover this fall, and recounted the amusing anecdote of how his then-editor convinced him to kill Betty Ross, girlfriend of Bruce Banner and the favorite character of David’s wife, after his wife divorced him. “Okay, let’s ditch the bitch,” the Incredible Hulk writer acquiesced.

Claremont spoke of his Nightcrawler ongoing series, which examines how the newly-revived title character adjusts to the changes that have occurred since his death. Claremont jokingly (?) admitted he was unaware that Charles Xavier himself is currently deceased, and offered his opinion on another recent bit of an X-Men story.

In an issue the identity of which Claremont could not remember, Cyclops falls out of a speeding airplane, much as he and his brother Havok did as a child. He yells for Emma Frost or even the departed Jean Grey to save him, but Claremont thinks the now-grown X-Men strategist should know better than to panic.

“Scott, don’t you have something that you can shoot at the ground to slow your fall?”

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What if Cyclops didn’t have a parachute, or know how to use his optic blasts?

Could that really work? Would the force from Cyclops’ optic blasts decelerate him enough to survive impact, or would blasting at the Earth just kill him sooner?

Crunching the Numbers

Let’s start with what we know. It’s hard to pin down just how fast a person has to be falling to be killed when striking the ground, as it’s dependent on things like body positioning and nature of the surface, but a 1983 article from the Journal of Pediatric Surgery found that about half of all children that fall from heights of four to five stories don’t survive. We’ll assume Scott is mildly unlucky but still more rugged than your average toddler, so it’ll take a 50-foot drop to snuff him out.

Knowing the acceleration of a body due to gravitational attraction near the Earth’s surface, we can plug in that distance to find that it would take Scott 1.25 seconds to fall from a height of 50 feet. By definition, that’s a speed of a little more than 27 mph. Let’s call that the minimum velocity needed to do the deed.

So how fast would Cyke be traveling after falling from a plane? Assuming he jumped from the average skydiving height of 12,500 feet, air resistance would cause him to reach terminal velocity in about 12 seconds, 1,500 feet or so into the fall. Terminal velocity is the point at which the drag force is enough to prevent an object from accelerating as it falls, and is about 122 mph for a person facing the ground flat. More than four times the speed needed to extinguish the X-Men’s fearless leader.

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Skydiver with a different kind of visor

Cyclops then has to exert a force – via his optic blasts – strong enough to decelerate his speed from 122 mph down to less than 27 mph. I’m not sure what the upper limits on his blasting abilities are meant to be, but we’ll assume he’s up to the feat and can control his power well enough to make it happen.

Let’s say Scott weighs about 160 lbs. – they don’t call him “Slim” for nothing. Then by using Newton’s second law of motion, F=ma, we can show that he’d have to exert a force of over 3,000 Newtons if he wanted to slow his speed to 27 mph more or less instantaneously (within about a second). That’s more than four times the force needed to cause major spinal cord injury, according to a 1975 study by the University of Virginia.

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Potentially deadly, and also in the wrong direction.

HOWEVER, if Cyclops could instead gradually slow his fall, utilizing the entire minute or so he’s got left after reaching terminal velocity, then it would take the steady application of only about 50 Newtons of force to slow his speed to a safer rate, well below the 660 or so Newtons needed to cause spinal injury due to a continual load. And even that’s a conservative estimate, as Scott will really have more and more time to fill the slower he falls, but that precise calculation involves differential equations, so it’s probably beyond the scope of this back-of-the-envelope figure. It’s certainly beyond this grad school dropout who hasn’t taken a math class in 13 years.

I Don’t Know About That One

While we’ve been talking about Newton’s second law, it’s really the third law – that every action has an equal and opposite reaction – that makes this crazy idea work. Of course it doesn’t seem to apply when Cyke’s on solid ground, or he’d be blowing himself backward every time he opened his eyes. Comics!

And while he got this one right, I’m not sure Claremont’s justification is very persuasive.

“If the A-Team can slow themselves down with a tank, Cyclops can use his optic blasts!”

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Firing a tank straight down to slow your fall? I don’t know about that one.

  • David Brooke

    You continue to show you’re not only the man, but probably the best writer on this damn site!

  • Todd Haynes

    Good article! I will go a couple of rounds with you on the comic book science, though. According to Marvel canon, the optic blast comes through from another dimension, through a portal Scott generates. Granted that’s not terribly well defined, but from a pure Newtonian physics perspective, the intention is that the blast exerts no force on Scott. Hence he doesn’t blow his own head off when he fires it.
    So theoretically, he can’t slow himself that way. However, if he ‘s clever he could whip off his shirt, tie it off into a small chute, then fire his blast up into it. There’d be force upward on the shirt, but none down on him (presumably something in that other dimension is experiencing the opposing force), and he could generate lift. Not sure what the numbers would be, but assuming the costume is fairly durable, if not armored, he should be able to moderate his drop.

    • BillNyesSon

      If Cyclops had pulled some MacGyver shit like that he would have earned my respect far more than anything else Marvel has done to push him.

    • Russ Dobler

      Hey, that was Claremont’s idea, not mine. Go tell him he’s wrong and see what happens! 😛