If you’ve been living under a rock, you may not be aware there’s a new “Superman” movie due out June 14. A trailer for Man of Steel shows a bearded Clark Kent followed by a clean-shaven Superman, thus prompting the question asked in the title of this post. Surely his whiskers, like the Man of Steel himself, must be basically indestructible?
Superfans know this question was addressed relatively early in Superman’s comic book incarnation. For the rest of us, Gillette (yes, the Boston-based purveyor of men’s grooming hardware and software—you knew there had to be a commercial tie-in here somewhere, right?) asked a handful of scientific-minded celebs to come up with their own answers.
Mayim Bialik, The Big Bang Theory actress who also holds a PhD in neuroscience from UCLA; actor, screenwriter, and comic book aficionado Kevin Smith; and Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman (TV’s “MythBusters”) rose to the occasion. So did Bill “the Science Guy” Nye. Trained as a mechanical engineer, Nye has made a career out of popularizing basic science education on both his own television show and in many appearances in the popular media.
All responded with videos explaining their theories on the topic, but it’s Nye who came up with the answer we like. His “Materials Science Theory” postulates that Superman could simply grind his whiskers away without damaging his face.
“In materials science, you can shape or cut things using materials that are not necessarily harder or stronger than the stuff you’re cutting,” Nye explains in this video. “So maybe there’s a feature of Superman’s beard that’s brittle. At the microscopic level, it has asperities and roughness, and his grinder is able to knock over these pieces of whisker even though the thing that’s knocking them over is not really any harder than the whisker. It’s just got a wider, stronger footprint.”
“This is a subtle, fabulous materials science thing that Superman doesn’t shave his beard by cutting it, he shaves it by grinding it without damaging his skin,” Nye concludes.
You can see all the videos, and vote for your favorite, here.