Nerd Factor: X-Ray-ted Vision

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X-Ray Spex advertisement from the 50’s

Dr. Mike Robinson ~ UL Communication Studies Professor

     X-ray vision seems like an ideal superpower to have. The ability to see through walls and other physical objects provides obvious advantages to the superhero. Need to find a hidden bomb? Start looking through all the walls of the city. Do you suspect some enemies are about to ambush you in the next room? Check ahead and see. Despite this utility, x-ray vision is a power that a superhero may come to regret possessing. 

     The first problem is how x-ray vision is achieved. Conventional x-ray machines work by sending x-rays through a target and onto some kind of collecting surface. That, for example, is why you have to put that weirdly shaped, uncomfortable plastic thing in your mouth when you get an x-ray at the dentist’s office. In order to find out if you have a cavity, your dentist needs equipment to catch that stream of X-rays and “see” how they passed through your teeth.

     While x-ray vision has been a long established superpower, it’s unclear how that works. The superhero is hopefully not emitting x-rays from his or her eyes. That is seriously dangerous. Again, think back to the dentist’s office. There’s a reason you wear that heavy lead smock and your technician leaves the room. Long term exposure to x-rays is hazardous to your health. The ability to emit x-rays would more accurately be called something like “ranged radiation attack” or “cancer generation.” 

     Also, if the superhero shot rays out, there’s no way for these images to be collected. X-rays don’t bounce back after all. 

     But hey, a lot of other things that happen in comics don’t make real world physical sense. So let’s pretend that there is some non-lethal way to see through walls that may or may not involve x-ray radiation. I mean seriously, who knows how Kryptonians do anything anyway. 

     There is still a major problem with so-called x-ray vision and it’s not the issue that immediately springs to mind. Everybody knows that Superman’s x-ray vision does not work on lead, so bad guys hide things in lead to create problems for Superman. 

     But the real issue there is not the lead part. Rather, it’s the “everybody knows” part. For some reason, Superman has chosen to tell people that he has this power. He’s kind of honest to a fault like that. But the superperson with x-ray vision is instantly a social pariah. 

     X-ray vision does not just see through walls. It also obliterates any sense of privacy. This goes far beyond the prurient fantasies of looking into someone’s dressing room or through their clothes to see their undergarments. X-ray vision lets one see through everything. 

     Said another way, privacy cannot exist in a world with x-ray specs. A useful crime-fighting tool is suddenly a means to a surveillance state. The slightest physical intimacy might by seen by any superhero just flying by. But so can any other action. Or inaction. When Superman is in town, Metropolis becomes the panopticon. 

     Of course Superman is not a voyeur. The adopted son of Jonathan and Martha Kent was instilled with the decent heartland values and he respects others. But here is the thing. How does the public know this about Superman? He has a secret identity. And even if the public did know this, could they believe it was true? Even those who truly trusted the x-ray visionary might still come to resent the means they must take to prevent accidents. After all, nobody wants to pay to surround their bedrooms in lead.