Thursday, May 17, 2007

So I'm watching Justice League...

The second part of "Hereafter" is on - you know, the Superman Is Trapped On a World With a Red Sun and Has No Powers But Oh My God, I Was Wrong, It Was Earth All Along one? I think Dwayne McDuffie wrote it.

Anyway, the girlfriend asks me why Superman's got a beard and is hitting wolves with a sword, and I'm forced to explain that Superman's powers are the result of him living under a yellow sun and they don't work if he's under a red sun. Which, trust me, sounds particularly insane when spoken aloud, but that's not the point. The point is that she then asks me if Kryptonite would still kill him were he under a red sun. I was all, "well, I mean, I guess - Kryptonians absorb the radiation Kryptonite emits more readily than human beings, so he'd probably, like, get cancer or something," a theory I'm basing entirely on the fact that Lex Luthor managed to give himself cancer by hanging onto a hunk of the stuff for too long. Also because of bourbon.

Thing of it is, I guess I always just figured Kryptonite hurt Kryptonians by being radioactive in a way that they were particularly receptive to - like, it was radioactive in general, but Kryptonians absorbed the radiation differently and more rapidly than humans in the same way that regular people under a yellow sun just get a tan - and then, upon the removal of the Kryptonite, their powers would kick in and heal them back up, so they don't end up riddled with tumors. I guess I never much questioned it - yellow makes Green Lantern rings not work, fire makes Martians weak in the knees, Kryptonite hurts Superman; you don't think about it, it just happens. Truth of the matter is, I never gave it too much thought but, true to form, Wikipedia did.

Like Hanna-Barbera's Birdman, Superman in some ways is a living solar battery; his cells absorb electromagnetic radiation from yellow stars (like Earth's sun). Kryptonite's radioactivity possibly interferes with this semi-photosynthetic process, driving the energy out of his cells in a painful fashion.

First off, only on the internet will you find somebody using freaking Birdman as a point of reference for anything, except maybe in a case like "this cartoon is slightly shittier than Birdman." Seriously, you're describing maybe the fourth-most recognizable character in worldwide popular culture, and you're going to name-check effing Birdman? Who's going to be reading this thinking "oh, he absorbs sunlight! Just like Birdman!"?

The article goes on to state that Kryptonite should have no effect on non-superpowered Kryptonians, so I guess it must have something to do with a Kryptonian's ability to process electromagnetic radiation. Still, I kind've like my explanation better than Wikipedia's, if just because I like me better than Wikipedia. You know, in general.

So, having reached no real conclusions, I reach out to you, the nerdosphere, to explain to me how the Hell Kryptonite works. Get to it.

Edited to add: I should've kept reading the Wiki - the Animated Series had pretty much the same explanation as me. Which means I clearly synthesized their thoughts as my own. Tsk tsk, me. That one still makes the most sense to me, though.


Crowded House said...

Who's going to be reading Wikipedia and get a Birdman reference?

Well, me, but that says more about me than it does about Wikipedia. Also I love it when totally random, semi-obscure pop cultural references are thrown out just to see what someone's reactions are.

Really, I do. Just ask my friends, Mike and the Mechanics.

Jon Hex said...

Ordinary Green Kryptonite can weaken any Kryptonian on exposure to its rays. Prolonged exposure can cause blood poisoning, which will eventually result in death, as the skin turns green.

It wasn't until recently that Kryptonite started causing cancer to humans through prolong exposure.

Roy said...

I'm with jon hex. If it were just a matter of the kryptonite messing up the photosynthetic process, we'd expect kryptonite to just weaken Superman to normal human levels, not kill him. The kryptonite is poisonous to him, though.

Tom Foss said...

Actually, based on my vaguely encyclopedic knowledge of post-Crisis Superman (I spent way too much time memorizing various facts from the Byrne run) and having read "The Science of Superman," I can say with some certainty how modern Kryptonite works.

See, Superman's cells are fueled by sunlight: red, yellow, blue, or whatever. Red sunlight doesn't have much energy, so it doesn't charge his cells a whole lot. Yellow sunlight has a lot more energy, allowing his cells to not only be fully charged, but to store a charge like a battery. If Earth's sun suddenly turned red or went out (see: Final Night), Superman's powers wouldn't immediately vanish. He'd just work from stored yellow sunlight until the power was gone (because, again, he still absorbs red sunlight, but it doesn't give him nearly as much power). One wonders what might happen if he were under a more energetic blue sun.

Kryptonite gives off electromagnetic radiation, like suns and stars and whatnot. While it will damage humans with prolonged exposure (meaning it's probably somewhere between ultraviolet and gamma rays in terms of frequency) Kryptonian physiology has a somewhat different reaction. When Superman is exposed to Kryptonite, he absorbs its radiation precisely as he would absorb sunlight, with two differences: one, Kryptonite is toxic, and two, it drives the sunlight out of his cells (I wish I could remember the reference issue or book for that little fact, but I'm certain of it). That's why Kryptonite affects Kryptonians more quickly and more lethally than humans. It's also why Superman is incapacitated for a bit after exposure: he has to recharge the lost energy. The longer the exposure, the more solar energy he loses, the more he has to recharge. And some of that energy has to go to repairing the damage done by the toxicity of Kryptonite, so the process is slowed even more.

And it would affect non-superpowered Kryptonians; after all, their cells are still absorbing electromagnetic energy.