Oh, Flash. Okay, this is going to sound weird, but sometimes…you don’t want science to show up in popular culture.
Sure, pop culture can be used in STEM classrooms in any number of ways, but one of the chief rules when you do use it is extremely important: Don’t Kill the Fun.
Add too much science, too much realism, and things just go all pear shaped. Case in point – super powers. If you use pop culture in your classroom, Superman can fly, Flash can run faster than anything, the Human Torch can burn without burning up and Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson can beat the living crap out of each other without massive traumatic head and other internal injuries.
Sometimes, science won’t work at all with pop culture, and you just have to let it go. No amount of hand-waving will bring it back into agreement with the laws and principles we know and love in our world.
Sometimes, superpowers are just magic.
Here’s a case in point – in Green Arrow #26 (still on shelves at your local comic shop, or digitally through Comixology here), the Flash told Green Arrow that he needs to eat about 50 times his own body weight every day to keep himself going at super speed.
Historically, yeah – this dates back to the days of Mike Baron writing the Wally West Flash just after (the original and best Crisis) Crisis on Infinite Earths. Wally was shown scarfing down piles of hamburgers and other food in order to keep up with his metabolism, but thankfully, the science was hand-waved away and, as far as I can recall, no numbers were ever attached to it. It was a gag that worked the less detail was put into it. Super-speed means super-metabolism. This has been carried into the DC Animated Universe where Flash was shown eating tons of food as well.
Which brings us back to Green Arrow #26.
Flash needs 50 times his body weight in food in order to do what he does?
This is one of those times where sticking a number on to something doesn’t make it better. It makes things worse.
Because we can hook on to that number and start to play with it. Like so:
If the Flash is about 170 pounds (according to the DC Universe Wiki – which, admittedly, it a little on the heavy side for a guy who runs constantly), 50 times his body weight is 8500 pounds of food – 4.5 tons each day. Most Westerners eat about 4 pounds of food a day, which reflects a caloric need of roughly between 2000 and 2500 calories a day (admittedly, people get by with a lot less and a lot more, but we’re shooting for the average). That’s roughly 500 calories per pound of food. 4.5 tons = about 4,250,000 calories. Which is about how much a regular human needs for 5 years.
According to Flash’s revelation, he eats 5 years worth of food in a day. That right there is a serious pressure on the local community he’s a part of. He’s consuming resources at a staggering rate.
So – taking that as a starting point, Flash’s bonkers revelation leaves us with more questions than answers:
1) Time and Space. How long does it take to eat 4.5 tons of food a day? Large herbivores like elephants can eat up to 500-600 pounds of food a day, but it takes them a long time – like 12-18 hours to do it. Okay, Flash would be eating (chewing, swallowing, digesting) at super speed, so he wouldn’t take all day to eat, obviously. But still…if he needs this many calories per day, eating would take up a somewhat significant portion of his day. Why haven’t we ever seen him eating – like seriously eating?
How long would it take, though? Takeru Kobayashi holds many world records for competitive eating, and has eaten 110 bunless hot dogs in 10 minutes. Again, the Flash would be eating at super-speed, but Kobayashi gives us at least a benchmark for speed eating. There are 151 calories in a hot dog, so 110 hot dogs = 16,610 calories. If Kobayashi was looking to get 4,250,000 calories by eating hot dogs alone, that’s 28,146 hot dogs. Without rest (and an infinite stomach) Kobayashi could eat those in 2559 minutes (at a rate of 11 hot dogs a minute), which is 42 hours. That’s eating non-stop, and not rescuing the world.
Speed this up, and this must kind of be what the Flash looks like when he’s eating:
Okay, maybe not exactly like that, but it would be pretty gross.
Also…how long does it take to buy and prepare that much food and where does he physically store it? Sundays are cooking days for the week? Does Blue Apron send a daily truck up to his door? And with that, wouldn’t the neighbors notice?
2) Death. When Speedsters die, they get taken back to the Speed Force by the Black Flash. Think of it like the reverse-stork. The Flash is a superhero. They get captured all the time. Heck – he was just shown in chains on the cover of Justice League #24. What happens when the Flash doesn’t eat? Does he whither away?
To maintain basal metabolic rate (which is what you’d be at if you were chained in a bad guy’s basement), humans need about 1550 calories per day on average. That’s just to keep the heart pumping, body stuff working, etc. That’s 64.6 calories per hour. The Flash’s super-metabolism would be waaaay higher than this, and thus, he’d be in dire straits in he was held captive for a couple of hours. Half a day without food? He’s dead.
3) Cost. How much does 4.5 tons of food per day cost? DC’s been working hard on the Peter Parkering (original Peter Parker, not Tony Stark Peter Parker) of Barry Allen and making in into an everyman on a CSI salary, so where does he get the money for this?
Let’s go back to hot dogs. Let’s say Barry was hating himself and wanted to get all of his calories from hot dogs for a day. As we calculated above, 28,146 hot dogs contain the calories in 50 times the Flash’s body weight. Let’s go to Wal-Mart. Today at Wal-Mart, and 8 pack of Nathan’s hot dogs (at 140 calories per dog, they’re slightly lower in calories than 151, but we’ll roll with it) costs $2.88.
Flash would need about 3518 packs. $10,131.84.
That’s for one day. A year on hot dogs alone? $3.7 million dollars.
3) Waste. Yeah. 50 times your body weight in food. Even the Flash wouldn’t metabolize and fully digest every last bit of the food he ate. For example, if there’s any cellulose in the food he eats, as a human, he can’t digest that. That’s what we call fiber and it scrubs out intestines. Fiber is good for you. Eat fiber.
So there’s going to be waste. Heck, in the panel, even Green Arrow makes a crack about it.
A normal human at about 170 would poop about a pound a day. That’s about a quarter of the four pounds Western people eat. If the Flash is eating 4.5 tons of food, he’s produce a little over a ton (2125 pounds) of poop per day. Know anyone who owns a Mazda Miata? Yeah, your friend’s car weighs just a little bit more than the poop the Flash would produce each day.
I’m not going to even wonder about where it goes, the plumbing, etc…but look: if Central City doesn’t have some plan to figure it out, and the Flash is strictly in town for say, a month fighting crime. You’ve got some water treatment problems you need to address.
Yeah – I went down some weird rabbit holes here (I didn’t even start to talk about how, if Barry chews at super-speed, the motion of his jaw would cause the air around it to move faster, heating up as a result, ultimately, the air around him would heat to hundreds if not thousands of degrees), but the door was opened by having the Flash say he needs to eat 50 times his body weight.
Again – if you ever write the Flash…no, just no. Don’t try to put any numbers on him. People like me will only start to play around with it and write articles like this, and people will write comments about how people like me just can’t let things like that go, and blah, blah, blah…no one wins.
But for Green Arrow #26, there’s an easy way out. So easy, and I like to think, probably what’s going on (or will be retconned into having gone on once issues like this are brought up to DC editors or writers) is simple. For going on 20 years now, the Flash’s speed comes from the Speed Force. Easy. What do you want the Speed Force to do? Cool – no problem, the Speed Force can do it. The Speed Force is magic. The Speed Force answers all questions – heck, I use it in my classrooms when my students ask about the physics of something they saw on The Flash on CW.
So if the Speed Force is established, why have Barry say anything like that to Green Arrow?
Follow it through – Barry tells Ollie a nutty story, Ollie believes him, and somewhere down the line, Ollie tells someone, someone who knows better, say, Superman or Batman. Heck, maybe Ollie, in talking to Batman some day, has a reason to ask him some of the questions above. I figure it would go something like this…
Ollie: Man, I don’t know how Barry does it.
Batman: What do you mean?
Ollie: How he has to eat or die. All that food he has to find and eat every day. He’s amazing.
Batman: What are you talking about?
Ollie: (explains some of the above)
Batman: Just how stupid are you, Queen?
Barry was just playing Ollie by telling him he needed 50 times his body weight, hoping Ollie was stupid enough to believe him.
(Apologies to DC and The Flash team if I spoiled an upcoming Flash storyline about Central City becoming a food desert, and a new mountain of poop growing to the north of the City that becomes the base of a new, very smelly supervillain)
A version of this story appeared as “Reality Check: The Flash eats HOW Much?” at Adventures in Poor Tatse, where the panel from Green Arrow #26 originally caught my eye in their “Panels of Purpose” column.