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How does Superman fly?

(or rather, a Superman like character in a different world. This is not a question about the existing fictional character but a similar being.)

He does not simply use high powered jumps and follow a ballistic trajectory. (Though the existing Superman originally did, actually.)

He does not fly through aerodynamic means. (He does not have wings or rotor blades. Also he can fly outside the earths atmosphere.)

He does not use some rocket-like device or organ.

So... What is the minimum hand-waving required to achieve superman-like flight? Is there any explanation with less than 100% hand waving?

Note that this must happen on a world very much like our own, apart from the occasional superhero.

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    $\begingroup$ This is answered on the SciFi SE scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/5396/how-does-superman-fly $\endgroup$
    – Hukk2010
    May 17, 2021 at 14:18
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    $\begingroup$ @Hukk2010 the question is not about how superman flies. It's about the least implausible method to achieve superman flight kn an Earth-like planet and an ill defined amount of space around it. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    May 17, 2021 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ You have a character with a super power. What IS the super power? Do they manipulate gravity? Have telekinesis? Generate heat? $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    May 17, 2021 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ How uncontrolled do you want this? For example, opening a tiny portal to a highly pressurized place could result in explosive thrust. It could toss the character around, or work like a rocket. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    May 17, 2021 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ "Nobody taught me. It's something I just do" Don't explain it, because the explanation will be gibberish anyway. $\endgroup$
    – Tony Ennis
    May 19, 2021 at 18:17

19 Answers 19

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Molecular-level perception and control

One of the lesser recognized features of Maxwell's Demon is that if it can let molecules through a door, then it knows the direction that molecules are travelling in. It can therefore allow molecules to pass straight through in one direction, but not come back through from the other direction. Maxwell designed the thought experiment around heat - but it works equally well for setting up a pressure differential, creating a force in one direction.

If Superman wants to travel upwards, he simply causes gas molecules traveling downwards to pass straight through his body. (Compared to the body, air isn't very dense, and the worst thing that could happen might be slightly increased dissolving of gas in the blood.) But gas molecules traveling upwards bounce off him as normal. This gives a net upwards force, and he flies. Naturally the force can be applied in any direction, so he can just add easily fly sideways as forwards. No problems manoeuvring.

He can also fly in space. Molecular density in space is a lot lower, of course, but it's still there. Solar sails and ion drives demonstrate that small forces over a long time are perfectly effective to get around. And of course he'd use his exit from the atmosphere to set up his initial trajectory, so everything after that is just fine-tuning.

Edit: From a good challenge by @Trioxidane in the comments (thanks dude!) I've run the numbers for this. 1atm is 101,325N per square metre; let's round to 100kN/m^2. The frontal area of the human is approximately 1m^2 (Superman actively doesn't want to be streamlined for this), giving 100kN force. For a 100kg person and G of 10 (approximately), that gives us 1kN force from gravity. Then 99kN net upward force with 100kg mass gives you 99G acceleration! So Superman needs to be at least 1% efficient as a Maxwell's Demon to counteract his mass at sea level, and anything better than that lets him fly. At sea level, there's absolutely no doubt this would work (allowing for general handwavium of this in the first place).

The obvious problem with this is that atmospheric density drops as you get higher. Superman's limit for upward acceleration will clearly be 0.01atm, assuming 100% efficiency as a Maxwell's Demon. According to this calculator this happens at 16km altitude. This is lower than the flight ceiling of an SR-71 (25.9km), and isn't even close to space.

I also have absolutely no idea how this would work speed-wise. The speed of sound is, basically by definition, how fast air molecules can go. Once Superman reaches the speed of the air molecules, I suspect they can't push him any faster. So maybe his speed tops out at Mach 1, or maybe you skip over that particular wrinkle.

Whether these are obstacles to the story, or whether you can power though the plot so that no-one says "yeah, but...", that's your call.

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    $\begingroup$ While an admirable answer, Superman can "fly" perfectly outside of the Earth's atmosphere. Also note that, however clever, all you are describing is a jet of air directed downwards, to push him upwards (or whichever direction). If this was the case, there would always be a massive blast of air behind him - exactly like a rocket. This would be an obvious and blatant part of his characteristics. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    May 19, 2021 at 15:33
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    $\begingroup$ "If Superman wants to travel upwards, he simply causes gas molecules traveling downwards to pass straight through his body" This gives him the power to phase through matter. Also it's funny to think of him getting gassy while flying and letting out a big belch when he lands. "Never fear, Superman is-- BRRRAAAPPPPPP!!! ugh. Superman is here." $\endgroup$
    – Schwern
    May 19, 2021 at 17:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Fattie: Disagree. This proposal doesn't work from launching air molecules, it works on a pressure differential. Its almost exactly the same concept that causes objects to float in water. Though to maintain this differential, there'd be a distinct updraft around him as the air moves back to the top, and his top speed would be limited to the air vibration speed, rather than the speed of sound. $\endgroup$ May 19, 2021 at 18:33
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    $\begingroup$ @MooingDuck "Its almost exactly the same concept that causes objects to float in water" Maybe a more fitting analogy here would be a bilge pump that effectively keeps the boat afloat when it would otherwise sink eventually (as bilge water is collected). The pump lets water out of the boat, but not in, therefore selectively only improving the float of the boat. $\endgroup$
    – Flater
    May 20, 2021 at 9:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Flater I guess a headwind will still slow him down, because he'll have slightly fewer molecules pushing him from behind; but we don't tend to realise how small the pressure from headwind is compared to air pressure. With 99G acceleration on tap and a top speed of Mach 1 (768mph) at sea level, he's not really going to notice anything less than a hurricane - and even that he can power through with ease. (Max recorded windspeed is 200mph in Hurricane Patricia.) $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    May 20, 2021 at 12:12
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They're in the Matrix

Like characters in the Matrix, superheroes have become aware of the fact that we all live in a simulation and can use this knowledge to perform inhuman feats such as flying. The only handwaving involved here is that an object in a computer program could somehow hack the program it's in, but I think that's all right, given the ridiculousness often seen in hacker movies. It could also lead to some interesting story arcs where people "break out" of the simulation or where everyone becomes superheroes.

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    $\begingroup$ @Michael Because flying is more fun $\endgroup$ May 18, 2021 at 11:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael Because there is a bug that can be abused to fly, but nobody has found a bug yet which allows teleportation. $\endgroup$ May 18, 2021 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael When flying, the algorithm just needs to 'speed up' the incremental change in the position routine - that is, add or subtract one to the existing position co-ordinates at a faster rate. Teleportation requires it be changed completely - replaced by another variable. It takes entirely different lines of code. One is a bug in existing code, the other is a new re-write. $\endgroup$ May 18, 2021 at 14:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael Because anticheat detects sudden change of coordinates but doesn't check for validity of movement otherwise. $\endgroup$ May 18, 2021 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Michael - perhaps teleportation causes clipping errors (maybe if you arrive with so much as one simulated molecule of your being below the simulated molecules of the surface you're supposed to arrive on). Possibly the almost-nil (but still not-actually-nil) time when there's no "you" in the simulation while you teleport prevents respawning at the target (i.e. disappearance = game over). Who knows? That's a secondary issue to how to fly in this case, albeit possibly a fun one to explore. $\endgroup$
    – Spratty
    May 18, 2021 at 14:32
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Joseph Pujol, also known as Le Petomane, was able to control the ejection of air from his anal sphincter.

It was a common misconception that Joseph Pujol passed intestinal gas as part of his stage performance. Rather, Pujol was allegedly able to "inhale" or move air into his rectum and then control the release of that air with his anal sphincter muscles. Evidence of his ability to control those muscles was seen in the early accounts of demonstrations of his abilities to fellow soldiers.

Whoever can fly like Superman can do the same while imparting the outgoing gas the needed delta v to get enough thrust. The massive muscular work needed to accelerate the air will also help increase its temperature, as a mean to cool the body.

Needed handwaving:

  • ejection velocity of the air
  • intake of the air
  • resistance of the sphincter walls to not be tore apart by the supersonic air flow
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Duch - Reinstate Monica I find the image of a human ramjet highly amusing $\endgroup$ May 17, 2021 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ I laughed and this is technically not a rocket-like organ, thus being valid, but I feel it's not in the spirit of the question. That being said, how does sideways motion work? Do the (butt)flaps give direction? $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    May 17, 2021 at 14:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane vectorial thrust, of course, just do your daily dose of squats $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 17, 2021 at 14:22
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    $\begingroup$ Disturbingly enough, this is the least impossible method so far... $\endgroup$
    – Guran
    May 17, 2021 at 15:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Guran ...Perhaps, and no offense to L. Dutch, but please don't choose this as the answer. Please. $\endgroup$
    – Len
    May 17, 2021 at 17:25
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Superman came from a large planet with enormous gravity, where his species had developed natural anti-gravity organs to be able to function; on Earth, this would allow him to control his own gravimetric field in order to fly.

Krypton’s gravity was much stronger than Earth’s, so much stronger that Kryptonians had to evolve to develop anti-gravity organs. These organs made it possible for Kryptonians to move around on Krypton without being crushed by the intense gravity. But on Earth, which has both weaker gravity and a kinder atmosphere, they can basically resist gravity so strongly, they defy it altogether. And while the storytellers since then have called out the anti-gravity organs to greater or lesser degrees, the overall effect on Superman's body is the same.

Even as recently as the movie adaptation Man of Steel, when Superman prepares to unleash the full potential of his alien body, causing the snow and stones around him to start to float. How? Just as in the comics, he’s essentially altering the gravity field around his body to enable himself to fly.

https://screenrant.com/how-does-superman-fly-explained/

The gravitational field associated with the particles must be attractive AND repulsive, and he can presumably shape the field to allow for motion in 3D.

Whilst this is a feat not yet achieved by our technology, there are many examples of nature finding a way long before we do or even inspiring our technology to develop.

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    $\begingroup$ You should indicate the quote and source where you're quoting. Start the line with a > $\endgroup$
    – Separatrix
    May 17, 2021 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ Wouldn't anti-gravity merely allow you to float slowly through the air? A useful power surely, but not close to superman flight. $\endgroup$
    – Guran
    May 17, 2021 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ Controlling your gravitational field will only allow you to be attracted more or equal to another object. Only if you somehow can make a negative gravitational field you would be able to fly, which is quite impossible for things with mass as far as I understand. $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    May 17, 2021 at 14:59
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    $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane why try to fly? Flying is impossible cira 1800... why try to trap electricity in rocks? Not like we could ever create useful things from THAT (IE: computers)... IMPOSSIBLE! (until it was made possible) $\endgroup$
    – WernerCD
    May 18, 2021 at 1:17
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    $\begingroup$ Given sufficient manipulation of gravity, a powerful Kryptonian may be able to generate negative mass and therefore achieve superluminal travel by generating an Alcubierre field $\endgroup$
    – March Ho
    May 18, 2021 at 1:49
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Magnets

Within proximity to the Earth there is a magnetic field everywhere. Having magnets within the body, or the body act as an magnet, it is possible to move on these magnetic forces. Handwaving needed: the impossible power required to do so. Even our most powerful electromagnets don't seem to interact much with Earths magnetic field. Advantage is that many people don't know exactly how magnets work, as evidenced by many perpetual motion ideas. This misunderstanding of magnetism and seeing it nearly as magic would help readers with the handwavium. Still, a force only marginally able to move a pin of a compass is hard to push off from.

Problems: only works on or near magnetic bodies. This answer is mostly for on Earth and some orbital flight, as the power would be quite useless outside the magnetic forces of the Earth. Also the power would act upon items around the world as you try to fly, but the magical thinking will help there. Magneto from the x-men can fly or just move whole magneticly lined structures. Readers suspend their disbelief and don't think about the other magnetic materials that should be affected. The handwavium is helped by handwavium the readers already do for themselves.

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    $\begingroup$ This is one of the powers in Mistborn, if I remember rightly - people with the Power of (I think) Steel can repel metals, and they can choose which particular piece of metal they repel. They do use it to fly, by throwing a penny on the ground and pushing themselves away from it. Arguably the same has to be true of Magneto, that he can pick which pieces of metal to magnet. If you think of it as temporarily inducing equal and opposite magnetism in that one piece of metal, like an induced charge in electricity, it makes sense, or almost. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    May 18, 2021 at 4:58
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    $\begingroup$ @A.B.: Why waste time with the penny when earth's core is perfectly suitable? $\endgroup$
    – Joshua
    May 18, 2021 at 19:37
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    $\begingroup$ Dunno, coolness value, probably. Or maybe it's too far away. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    May 19, 2021 at 2:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Joshua Pushing on the earth core could only allow to go upwards. With pennies, they can angle the push when they go past it and travel forward. (Also, too far indeed) $\endgroup$
    – Echox
    May 19, 2021 at 12:27
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Plasma Containing Super-crystals

What about ionic charge manipulation. Basically his skin carries a super-high charge under the surface, which rapidly pulses (a plasma contained in a tuned crystalline matrix may do the trick). This alters the charge around him, allowing magnetoaerodynamic propulsion. Since the charge is evenly spread around him, his "passengers" that he saves are not electrocuted (like passing through a high voltage electric field, it doesn't attempt to ground), but since he can alter the "flow" of the field, he can fly. This may work on photons as well, and the charged photons become exciton-polaritons. There is some suggestion that the energy from photons somehow charges superman's power. Perhaps his crystalline matrix is at harmonic resonance with them. This would also explain kryptonite, which must be at some amplifying resonance, which has something like gamma-rays and the high-energy particles create a destructive resonance effect. Of course, this is still hand-waving, since no plasma crystalline matrix of this nature has any kind of proof of existence... but I've reduced it to a single (complex) mechanism (plasma crystalline matrix), with a single (complex) effect (ionic charge manipulation/magnetoaerodynamics).

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    $\begingroup$ I like it. Somehow pseudoplausible without involving any farting... $\endgroup$
    – Guran
    May 17, 2021 at 20:22
  • $\begingroup$ At the core of this answer, I think ion propulsion is the right path of reasoning regardless of HOW you do it. Ion propulsion is A real which minimizes handwavyness, and B requires very little ejection mass compared to other forms of propulsion which is important for answering how he flies in space. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 17, 2021 at 21:48
  • $\begingroup$ Magnetohydrodynamicpropulsion is magnetic propulsion in water. How will that help with flight, both in the air, which will likely be "via the water vapour in the air", and in space? $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    May 18, 2021 at 7:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane Just delete the "hydro". There are similar devices that allow flight through the air via ionized air particles; some of the pseudoscience "antigravity" devices actually work via this mechanism. Won't help in space, though, unless you're generating a truly enormous electric field to manipulate the solar wind or interstellar medium. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    May 18, 2021 at 7:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Guran - you have identified the answer's greatest strength and its greatest weakness in one sentence; kudos. $\endgroup$
    – Spratty
    May 18, 2021 at 14:35
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No One Knows:

In a universe of super heroes, there are already established abilities, and people are already being asked to suspend disbelief for these. Given the set of abilities, we can find a way to apply them to flight. Telekinesis. Thermal manipulation. gravity control. Time manipulation (yes, you can fly by manipulating time). If you disallow flying in space, I could add a dozen more. Physicists in your world understand these things, even if our physics doesn't.

The explanation allowing the most suspension of disbelief is that NO ONE knows how they are doing it. It's flat-out impossible, and everyone agrees it shouldn't be happening. So how is it possible?

This allows the reader to enjoy the question, while not requiring a bunch of making up stuff that people know isn't real. You can always assume the author has an explanation in mind, and just isn't sharing it.

Further, it can be a fun plot element. Physicists study the MC in an effort to solve the mystery. Other super heroes have reasons why, but not yours. People tell him it's not possible, or assume he's playing a trick, or has a rocket. But there is no reason. Perhaps after exhaustive research, someone declares they've figured it out. This one experiment will prove the reason. Only the experiment fails on the last page of the book.

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    $\begingroup$ No one knows (and thus no cares) and Everyone Suspends their Disbelief are my two favorite answers when it comes to super heroes and magic. $\endgroup$
    – Len
    May 17, 2021 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ TBH, unless the way the ability works is significant to the plot, this is the only correct answer here. Good superhero stories involve explaining just enough to understand how a character derives their abilities, and nothing more unless the plot requires it. Trying to over-explain things hinders suspension of disbelief, and makes it harder to follow the story. $\endgroup$ May 18, 2021 at 2:10
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    $\begingroup$ Oh, I like "They don't actually know and you're right, it shouldn't make sense". +1. (If I remember rightly, this happened some way into Strong Female Protagonist, when the super-tough and super-strong Allison develops the apparently irrelevant ability to fly - in her case, they did work it out eventually, but the explanation involved her powers turning out to work nothing at all like how people had thought they did). $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    May 18, 2021 at 5:05
  • $\begingroup$ I really do think this is the right answer. The compulsion for many worldbuilders to explain everything is sharply at odds with the general reader's concerns. Convincing the audience that superpowers are plausible with their understanding of the world is a doomed endeavor, because they aren't. If anything, exposing the reader to an alternative version of science puts you on the hook for keeping it consistent and plugging plot holes, and even the Disney MCU with all its billions of dollars hasn't been able to do that $\endgroup$
    – automaton
    May 18, 2021 at 15:45
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His body was made of a 'material' that does not include any Higgs bosons.

Thus, his body has no inertia. F=ma does not apply.

Given this, he could use any of the other forces, particularly the EM force, to manoeuvre at unrestricted speeds.

This further explains why he can go right through any 'solid' structure.

Stopping, however, could be problematic.

And his punches would have absolutely no impact (pun intended).

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  • $\begingroup$ Sneaky!! I like it $\endgroup$
    – Stilez
    May 20, 2021 at 7:41
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Control of quantum mechanic probabilities (read: super luck)

If you can somehow control what happens at your particles at all times, you are able to do most anything, like go through solids or teleport to the moon. I guess casually moving with slow speed to any direction would be "easier" (=require less absurd amounts of control/luck) to get your particles to happen to go there.

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    $\begingroup$ The Infinite Improbability Drive!!!! (Hitchhikers' Guide) The more improbable a movement is, the more it is likely!!!!! $\endgroup$ May 18, 2021 at 14:04
  • $\begingroup$ I gotta see this sometime. $\endgroup$ May 19, 2021 at 5:17
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He is able to change his frame of reference at will

To us, the Earth appears to be non-moving. Yet scientists tell us it is speeding around the Sun and that the Sun is speeding around the galaxy, etc. The 'speed' at which we decide we travel, depends on what it is in relation to.

By simply choosing his frame of reference, Superman appears to be moving, but in fact he is absolutely still at all times.

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  • $\begingroup$ I read a story once where this was essentially achieved with time travel. The traveler stood still, but the galaxy moved over time. Interplanetary travel by which planets occupied the same space before. Kind of a straight line, but... $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    May 17, 2021 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ Any of us can choose our frame of reference at will. I can choose the Sun as my frame of reference, and lo, I'm moving at great speed! (relative to the Sun.) That doesn't change my speed relative to the Earth though, nor anyone else's perception of my speed relative to themselves. $\endgroup$
    – Gene
    May 17, 2021 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ @Gene - That's not quite what I mean. Suppose I can choose to become static with reference to the Andromeda galaxy for example, then my speed relative to the Earth will be enormous and, from an Earth-dwellers point of view I will appear to fly off into space. However, from my point of view, the Earth is flying away from me. By being able to choose my own frame, I can make the Earth 'go away' in any direction I wish it to. $\endgroup$ May 17, 2021 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ That basically implies that you can magically disregard the laws of physics and change your momentum at will, since normally changing frame of reference doesn't change your momentum. I'd classify that as more hand-wavey than most other answers in this question. $\endgroup$
    – March Ho
    May 18, 2021 at 1:46
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    $\begingroup$ @chasly-supportsMonica Uh... yeah, we know how gyroscopes work. That's old news. And since we all exist in every single frame of reference at all times... this one isn't very useful. You're talking about arbitrarily changing momentum. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    May 18, 2021 at 22:46
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Dark matter

At every moment there are particles of fairly "cold" dark matter moving through all of us at not quite relativistic speeds in every direction. The Superman has a very special genetic variant of the actin protein which binds iodine in a precise directional pattern within the sarcomere. This pattern of iodine nuclei happens to interact, very weakly, with the very fast dark matter particles passing through it in one particular direction at a certain velocity most common in the gas of dark matter that surrounds us. The spacing only works out right when the muscle fiber is under a certain high level of tension, so it took time and considerable mental effort to tap into this ability. Also, to reach full power he has to be an avid fan of dulse and such to keep his iodine levels well above normal. Now, however, he knows how to tense many of his muscles in a way that will pull him along the axis, origin to insertion, of that particular muscle. The result is that he and he alone can tap into the pool of limitless free energy that surrounds us all ... for now.

I imagine some heroic scientists would like to take some samples and run some simulations and figure out how to reverse engineer this. Limitless free energy -- surely, they would use this only for good purposes! (It might be best, for commercial reasons, and to discourage others who might abuse the knowledge thus obtained, to incarcerate the Superman and otherwise make some disposition of him after the technology is validated in secret)

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  • $\begingroup$ This physics SE answer also says the Earth likely would have a sizeable velocity relative to the ambient dark matter in our region of the galaxy, so if Superman's body somehow interacts more with the dark matter than ordinary Earth matter, maybe his body can act like a dark matter ramjet. $\endgroup$
    – Hypnosifl
    May 21, 2021 at 4:51
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telekinesis level, or original invisible jet level

I see 2 ways it could (technically) work:

1-an iron-man style combat armor that, much like the original version of wonder woman's invisible plane, is perfectly transparent and has completely silent, unnoticeable propulsors, making it seem like the wearer is magically floating/flying through the air. This could also explains things like laser eyes, except the eyes wouldn't glow and the laser beans would seem to appear out of thin air to someone paying close attention.

2-goood ol' telekinesis: telekinesis is by definition the ability to control, influence or manipulate matter through the power of the mind, and has been shown in media to allow for some "neat" abilities, like killing people far away with no traces of a weapon or offender and flying through the air via using your telekinesis to carry yourself around (in the series akame ga kill, the character Esdeath also does something similar by using her ability to control and manipulate ice to fly around through having a layer of ice in her arms and legs, although in her case it's pretty much just straight up magic).

So summing up, you'll either need pretty advanced, transparent tech or borderline magic abilities like telekinesis to achieve flight without any means of propulsion (or string systems attached to a silent plane high above) visually present to the naked eye. I honestly doubt it's possible to achieve without handwaving unless we're talking about a planet where the atmosphere is as dense as water while still being breathable, then its totally possible, although you'd look more like aquaman than like superman while "flying" around.

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Flying - and many superhero-like powers - can be explained pretty neatly by super-beings existing in and able to interact with more dimensions than ordinary people are able to interact with. In this hypothetical universe ordinary people physically exist in the nth, n+1th, and n+2th dimensions. What ordinary folks perceive as point particles are complex objects in nth, n-1th, and "lower" dimensions - overlapping our perceived space by one dimension. What we perceive as "super" are the actions of otherwise imperceptible structures existing in "higher" dimensions.

Case 1: The super-being's body partly exists in other directions and it is able to act in those directions to alter the state of its substance in our "normal" space. For instance, if it had body parts in the direction gravity bends space possibly by flexing that extra-dimensional substance it could warp the space in which its perceptible parts exist. This sort of extra-dimensional structure could account for things like laser eyes (ie, the 2D surfaces of its eyes are attached to an organ in a higher dimensional space that produces a laser-like beam in our space) and all sorts of other super-being type weirdness.

Case 2: The super-being can rapidly move in and out of the space we perceive. In this case our super-man flies by existing in our 3 physical dimensions, quickly stepping out, moving slightly, and quickly re-inserting itself in our spaces. Doing this quickly and repeatedly yields the appearance of seamless motion. Teleportation is trivial when you can jump off the sheet, move a little, and jump back on.

Having - or being able to use - these extra-dimensional parts could be what makes one a super-being, and what the extra-dimensional parts are is what determines the super-being's "powers". Handwaving comes into play when talking about how this happens at all. Perhaps we all have these parts but only "supers" can use them. Perhaps a hyper-dimensional wizard did it.

Notes from comments

Moving in multiple dimensions is not particularly "difficult". You do it every day in your life: 3 perceived spatial dimensions, 1 unperceived dimension that exists due to gravity, a magnetic field, plus we can call time and probability dimensions as well - Heinlein did after all and writing is the meta-topic.

Moving in "other" dimensions could have some challenging effects if a mistake were made. Many super-beings probably go missing due to childhood accidents.

Those struggling to imagine a many-dimensioned geometric universe (as illustrated below) should read 'Flatland: A Romance in Many Dimensions' as a primer for imagination. Those intrigued should look into the notion of a holographic universe and gravity as a torsion in time. There are more things in heaven and Earth than are dreamt of in philosophy, so go wild when writing.

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  • $\begingroup$ Adding extra spatial dimensions is tricky. The slightest movement in the extra dimension would put our hero somewhere outside of our tiny slice of it, and finding the exact position on the W axis where our reality lives is an incredibly difficult process. One tiny fraction of a millimeter off and you end up in Cthulhu's lounge or in the middle of some failed Big Bang event. Could be nasty. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    May 18, 2021 at 22:59
  • $\begingroup$ Tricky? You walk in at least 5 dimensions and haven't ended up in a fantasy story yet, correct? Movement in other directions need not be in probability any more than gravity is a movement in such a direction. Heinlein has been dead for decades, leave him rest. It is notable that super-beings are rare, likely because super-beings that are malformed or make a mistake end up on a missing person's list. With great power comes a great ability to kill yourself accidentally. $\endgroup$ May 20, 2021 at 12:11
  • $\begingroup$ Nah, I walk in 3 spatial dimensions, more or less. They might not be the nice regular, mathematically perpendicular dimensions we'd like, but they're they ones we have. Sort of. Mostly. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    May 21, 2021 at 4:12
  • $\begingroup$ 3 dimensions, plus 1 at least in gravity-bent space, plus we can call time and probability dimension for fun, plus you're moving around in a magnetic field and what is that exactly? 7 and counting from a few seconds' thought. It's not hard to imagine a geometric interpretation of the universe. $\endgroup$ May 21, 2021 at 17:03
  • $\begingroup$ That's one way of looking at it. Or we can fit gravity into 3 dimensions if those dimensions are non-uniform, and while we can treat time as a dimension, and it's sometimes useful to do so, it's not necessarily true. Reality isn't tidy like that. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    May 21, 2021 at 22:48
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Micro-dermal wings

What do the intestines, the lungs and the brain all have in common? Structures to have as much surface area as possible! Apply this idea to the skin in such micro proportions that it'll look normal, but in reality you have that much more surface area to push air away. Much like the hair rising on your arms these folds can be controlled. They can flap, pushing the air away and giving flight. This will immediately act as control surfaces, making it omnidirectional however you want, while all the time looking like skin.

Needed handwaving:

  • Resistant skin
  • Strength of air movement
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  • $\begingroup$ What about flying through the vacuum of space? $\endgroup$ May 18, 2021 at 16:56
  • $\begingroup$ On average most superheroes have only their heads and hands uncovered while on the job, and some don't even show that much. For this to be useful your superhero would need to wear the absolute minimum of clothing. And definitely no cape. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    May 18, 2021 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ @MarkLakata some air is trapped inside the folds and can be shot out much like an ion engine. Fast and hard. If flatulence is allowed, why not? $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    May 19, 2021 at 8:55
  • $\begingroup$ @Corey either that, or incredibly airy clothing. If high pressurised farting in a suit is allowed, why not this? $\endgroup$
    – Trioxidane
    May 19, 2021 at 8:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane Yeah, I downvoted that one. Not saying you shouldn't post, just that I could see a problem with it if the hero wants to wear clothing :) $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    May 19, 2021 at 9:04
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I think the answer that has been deleted needs a re-visit, as it has merit.

Airplanes stay in the air by manipulating pressures above and below. Hot air balloons rise and fall by changing the relative air densities using heat.

If this superflyer has an ability to dramatically increase the temperature in one part of his body, and dramatically lower it in another, then he can use this for propulsion. Some ability to move extreme amounts of heat from one area of the body to another. The hot area would have a lower air pressure, the cold area would be denser. The net difference would produce a propulsive force. It is not a jet engine, nor is it any type of rocket organ. It does not depend on reaction mass, but of pressure differences, like an airplane wing, only in any direction.

The criteria that is not met, is the ability to operate efficiently in the vacuum of space. Methinks the propulsion would be in reverse - the radiated heat energy on one side, the lack of radiation on the other side, creating a net unbalanced force.

There is certainly a credibility gap between the theoretical propulsion forces and the required ones.

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Hydrogen-extracting organ and inflatable gas sacs

Okay, admittedly, this won't get you out of the atmosphere, but if you're looking for non-ballistic flight, your best option is to make your hero lighter than air. He has an organ with the ability to extract hydrogen from air and water. Let's say it operates on bio-electrolysis - there are real-world examples of animals (electric eels) that can create electricity, you just need to amp this up by a significant degree in order to separate water (possibly in vapor form from mist and clouds) into oxygen and hydrogen. The oxygen keeps him alive in the thin upper atmosphere, and the hydrogen is funneled into flexible inflatable sacks around his body, making him lighter than air, like a blimp. This feature also exists in nature - blowfish can greatly increase their volume by pumping themselves up with water - you just need to make that work but with hydrogen instead.

For maneuverability, he could expel some excess gas (you can use your imagination to determine how) in a directed manner to steer in midair. This would of course cause him to gain weight and lose altitude in the process, but so long as he continually electrolyzes the surrounding water vapor and replenishes his hydrogen supply, he could stay airborne indefinitely.

He wouldn't necessarily be the fastest thing in the air while rising, but unlike most planes he'd never need to land to refuel. If he wore some kind of wing suit (not like Marvel's Falcon, more like one of these that actually exists today), he could gain altitude as described above, then let it all out, becoming heavier than air and using the wing suit for lift and maneuverability - in that case he could be decently fast while gliding, but he'd have to fill up on water vapor every now and then to regain lost altitude during these dives.

Clouds would be his friends since he'd need a steady supply of moist air - he'd be useless flying over a desert. Might want to avoid very stormy clouds though, as a lightning strike could be problematic, though not as bad as you might think since he's not grounded.

That said, his major weakness would be fire. With that much pure hydrogen filling his blow-sacks, a small spark could make him blow up like the Hindenburg. (Oh, the humanity, or inhumanity in his case, maybe.)

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You can give your hero electrodynamic control of the air around him to create thrust. This Ion-thruster system has two parts:

  • The electric generator - It is similar to that of an electric eel, and has a preferred polarity, i.e. one side is always positive and the other is always negative.
  • Conduction system - making its own "electric wires", by depositing metallic crystals connecting the electric pulse generator to the "electrodes" which ionize the air. Wires must be thick enough (or the hero must have enough of them) so that the wires will not overheat when power load is high.

You create an ionizer which strips electrons from the air on one side. The air, being identically charged as that electrode is repelled backwards to the other electrode which gives back the electrons. You have created a bladeless jet engine which jets air using electricity.

I have seen airplane models employing this method yielding high power.

Inspired by this article on MIT's electrodynamic engine: https://www.motorbiscuit.com/this-for-real-plane-flies-using-ion-thrusters-and-no-fuel/

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he doesn't fly. He is just ok with constantly falling and forgetting to hit the planet.

Besides having a rather hard stomach, the narrativum of the world that was discovered by Mr Newton says, that a cannonball dropped high enough and fast enough to the side will always miss the planet. Because the ball doesn't know it should hit earth from there of course.

However, experiments of a certain homeless hitchhiker show, that this behavior can be replicated and the subsequent fall steered in the manner of free fall if you can totally forget that you are falling and should impact earth. Which is the tricky part.

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Ion drive

https://news.mit.edu/2018/first-ionic-wind-plane-no-moving-parts-1121 Here MIT researchers made an airplane with no moving parts by using high voltage electricity.

Superman generates a very high voltage between his body and his cape. This ionizes the air which can then be used for propulsion. Bonus is that can also be used in space though he would have ionize something (maybe by slowly destroying his suit?) to act as reaction mass.

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