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The Krypton Problem

October 9th, 2014 · 24 Comments

So, here are a couple weird things about Superman I’ve never seen anyone comment on, though they’re so glaring it seems as though somebody must have.

First, Superman has a range of diverse and extraordinary powers common to his species, each of which would seem to represent a complex and independent evolutionary adaptation: Directed flight, near invulnerable skin,  heat vision, X-ray and telescopic vision, freezing breath, and the underlying capability to absorb and store solar radiation that drives them all.  These are powers any Kryptonian would exhibit when exposed to the light of a yellow sun.  Yet Krypton’s sun, Rao, is not yellow but red: Kryptonian bodies not only are incapable of processing and storing its radiation for these spectacular effects, but seem actively weakened by it.  That is, even when Superman has been absorbing normal amounts of yellow sun radiation and is fully empowered, relatively brief exposure to red solar radiation causes him to quickly lose these powers.  So while all Kryptonians apparently possessed the same latent biological capabilities as Superman, all but the very earliest stories depict them functioning more or less as baseline humans while living on Krypton.

This ought to be somewhat mystifying in Darwinian terms.  It would be like discovering that a species living exclusively in deserts had evolved fins and complex gills. It would be pretty much impossible for all these complex adaptations to emerge naturally in an environment where they would never be expressed, and therefore could confer no fitness advantage.  That would leave two possibilities. One is that the Kryptonian genome had been artificially modified, presumably by another more advanced species, for some unfathomable reason, to imbue Kryptonians with extraordinary capabilities that would be suppressed in ordinary life.  The other is that Kryptonians did, in fact, evolve under the light of a yellow sun—either Rao in an earlier phase of its existence, or another star from which the “Kryptonians” either migrated or were transplanted, losing their native abilities. However, with the exception of the Daxamites —a species descended from Kryptonian colonists, and also living on a planet orbiting a red sun—the otherwise extraordinarily technologically advanced Kryptonians are portrayed as a xenophobic species with little interest in space exploration.  This would be especially odd if Kryptonians had all previously exhibited superhuman capabilities under the light of a younger, yellow Rao—since you’d expect the civilization to turn its technological prowess single-mindedly toward the task of reclaiming their genetic legacy, if they were aware of it.  If the answer is that Kryptonian abilities evolved under a yellow Rao millions of years in the past, before recorded Kryptonian history, wouldn’t genetic drift have eventually rendered these vestigial abilities non-functional in modern members of the species? Or alternatively, wouldn’t that be sufficient time for Kryptonian physiology to have adapted to process red sunlight?

Second, Kryptonite seems fantastically improbable.  Superman’s greatest weakness, as everyone knows, is his own former home planet: After it exploded, Krypton’s fragments passed through a “cloud of radiation” that transformed them into the familiar glowing green substance that is highly lethal to Superman, though apparently not immediately harmful to ordinary humans or other terrestrial life forms.  Whatever radiation caused this effect does not appear to be common in nature: It is encountered almost exclusively via Kryptonite, though Superman has traveled extensively throughout the universe. We don’t find other bits of celestial debris, not originating on Krypton, that have been similarly transformed. Yet it also was present in sufficient quantity and concentration near Krypton that, as far as I know, all fragments of the planet Superman later encounters have become Kryptonite.

In other words, one of the only things in the universe that can readily kill even a yellow-sun-empowered Kryptonian is a form of radiation that seemingly exists nowhere in nature except around the former location of Krypton.  Not close enough to have killed off the inhabitants of the planet, mind you, but apparently close enough that, excepting little Kal-El’s escape shuttle, nearly all matter ejected by the planet’s destruction has been irradiated.  All that implies that this Kryptonite-creating radiation field must be present almost exclusively as, in effect, a large bubble around Krypton.  That would, one supposes, account for the limited interest in space exploration, but it’s also s a hell of  coincidence.

What’s really astonishing is that these two facts, especially in combination, don’t seem like random lapses in story logic, but rather seem to suggest a common explanation.  A whole planet of Supermen would, of course, be one of the most terrifyingly formidable forces in the universe: Superman alone, after all, has been seen to single-handedly  battle entire interstellar armadas. (Think of the Viltrumites from Invincible.)  Individual organisms comparable to an adult Kryptonian seem to be extraordinarily rare, and when they do exist,  they tend—like the “New God” Darkseid—to rule entire planets.  So what’s the obvious inference when we find an entire species of these juggernauts living on a planet where their powers are nullified, surrounded by a bubble of extremely rare radiation that would kill nearly any spacefaring members before they could reach a star that would repower them?  It’s sort of a no-brainer: Someone did this to them on purpose.  You could imagine a benign hyper-advanced species like the Guardians of Oa doing it to a naturally evolved hyperpowerful species, maybe accelerating Rao’s transition to red giant phase and creating the—come to think of it, suspiciously greenish—radiation bubble, at least as a temporary measure until they’d cultivated a high level of peaceful civilization.  Less benignly, maybe a species like the Engineers from Prometheus would want to keep an ultimate biological weapon in reserve, like a  plague bacillus in a bottle.

The only really surprising thing is that, as far as I’m aware, no writers have decided to run with this obvious explanation for two otherwise bafflingly improbable facts.    Never mind the bottled city of Kandor—I want to read the story of who bottled Krypton, and why, because it seems clear someone did.

Tags: Art & Culture



24 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Thacker // Oct 9, 2014 at 2:07 pm

    Arguably Douglas Adams did run with a variety of this explanation when he discussed the planet Krikkit in Life, the Universe, and Everything:

    It was, as you say, the obvious explanation for a planet isolated from everything else and technologically advanced but otherwise xenophobic.

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  • 3 Tim McGaha // Oct 11, 2014 at 6:43 am

    You may have heard of Larry Niven’s 1971 essay, “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex” —


    No one’s really explored the implications THERE, either. And probably for the same reason, they just didn’t feel like opening that particular can of worms today.

  • 4 Marcella // Oct 11, 2014 at 11:24 am

    Another possibility for Superman’s reaction to yellow sun radiation could be that it caused multiple mutations in his Kryptonian DNA.

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Oct 11, 2014 at 11:29 am

    Actually, some of the implications of the Niven essay HAVE been explored in the comics. The “Lois dies when the baby kicks” scenario was shown happening in an alternate future during the Armageddon 2001 storyline in the early 90s, though I think current cannon is that Kryptonian & human DNA just aren’t naturally compatible.

  • 6 Kevin Binversie // Oct 11, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    The Guardian theory isn’t too crazy. Think of the Daxamites, Kryptonian colonist not in the same system as Krypton (Argo, where Kara Zor-El was from is either a city thrown into space or a sister planet depending on continuity). Same powers as their cousins, but they have a lethal weakness to lead.

    They too were insanely xenophobic.

  • 7 heh // Oct 12, 2014 at 9:41 pm

    …reason #893541 why Batman is the superior series.

  • 8 Kryptonite | Sam's blog // Oct 16, 2014 at 4:28 pm

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  • 9 Patrick // Oct 17, 2014 at 7:41 am

    All early iterations of Krypton described it as having a pure uranium core, with the term “core” being rather liberally inclusive of anything under the mantle. Kryptonite can therefore be regarded as a trasuranium element far down the periodic table that resulted from the explosion of such a huge mass. You could additionally interpret the radiations of kryptonite as the generation of vast volumes of neutrinos, lethal to anyone with the molecular density of Kryptonians but harmless to humans – which accords with the known situation.

  • 10 Dan Weber // Nov 3, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    > Someone did this to them on purpose.

    In fact, I believe the canon (at least prior to Zero Hour) was that it was one of Jor-El’s ancestors who did this to the Kryptonians. Probably out of the same fears you point out, but he was worried about his own race becoming universe-conquerers, not some other race. So he somehow “genetically bound” Kryptonians to their planet. There was a story in the mid-90’s where an alien race goes out to prosecute Kal-El for the crimes of his ancestor in doing that, since it prevented them from evacuating Krypton. (That is, Superman was on trial for the deaths of all Kryptonians.)

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  • 12 FCW // Jan 5, 2015 at 5:59 am

    Really so glaring, it seems as though somebody must have. Wide range of diverse and extraordinary powers..

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  • 14 Urien Uthyr // May 19, 2015 at 8:36 pm

    You’re on to something there. In fact what might have happened was very similar to the origin stories of the Martians.
    The Martians were originally a race called The Burning. And they existed for one purpose only, to consume all organic lifeforms.
    The guardians of the universe fearing this threat and being unable to completely eliminate that race, they did the next best thing. The Oans split The Burning into two races. The green and white Martians. And to prevent them from ever becoming The Burning once again they placed a psychic block of sorts. The vulnerability to fire. Any sort of fire weakens and could kill a martian.

    So in there you have a very good idea has to what might have happened to the kryptonian race.

    Then again there’s also the story Superman: The Last Goddess Of Krypton. In it, it’s shown that the wide known kryptonian race was in the distante past a kind of servent species created by an incredible more powerful and advanced race of godlike beings that lived on Krypton. Eventually the godlike race fought against one another to the point that at the end of the war. Three things happened. Some of the winners choose to leave this dimension and ascend to a higher plane of existence, others chose to leave the planet and search the stars for new purpose and new objectives, and finally the servent race. Those were left with Krypton all by themselves. But they were still made from the same genetic material has the godlike, they simply had no powers because most likely they were engeneered to have no powers. Most likely through the use of Krypton’s own sun working has a blocking agent.

    And there’s also many other theories.
    One of them that’s been debated and created by Superman fans all over the world, that simply can’t stand anymore, to read about ridiculous theories of a planet with impossible gravity that combined with a M class star makes them, genetic solar-nuclear reactors under the light of a G class star.
    Anyone that knows anything about genetics and astrophysics, knows that the whole solar battery theory is incorrect and most of all, impossible to achieve under any circumstances. At least ones that involve a normal level of logic thought.
    Our theory is simply that. Our theory. It’s logical and could explain everything about kryptonian powers, but we’re a minority that simply likes to play around with good ideas and logic lines of thought, to a seemingly impossible problem.

    Our theory has no official name, given that we don’t need one. But it goes like this.
    Sometime in Krypton’s past, something happened to the planet, a kind of cosmic event. The planet itself already had everything it needed to, in the distante future develop life. But something happened, that added something different to the planet atomic composition.
    And that something was an hypernova.
    Has you might know, hypernovas are amongst the most energetic events in the cosmos and it has an interesting feat to it. Unlike a supernova were the supermassive star basically expells its outerlayers into space in all directions, in a hypernova two jets, beams of highly accelerated matter and energy, are projected into outerspace.
    I (we) believe that Krypton was hit straight on by one of the beams of energy of a hypernova. Has you might know the beams of energy from a hypernova can stretch beyond the length of our galaxy. It has an immense amount of energy in it.
    Well if Krypton had been hit by one of those beams of energy, theory says that there’s a good chance that unique exotic types of matter, or simply more develop isotopes of matter we already know could be introduced into an object (in this case a planet) that could’ve have a multitude of results, depending on many factors.
    The main point here, is the introduction of abnormal, highly complex isotopes, or even exotic matter in a planet that otherwise would not have those elements in it.
    Once those highly energetic particules started to mix with the regular matter, all manner of things could and should happen. The most likely being, the development and appearing of more complex types of matter.
    Has the planet continued on its path of existance/evolution, being changed forever after the event, all life on Krypton would also develop in unique ways.
    One common point to Krypton has stories go, is that it has a much larger gravity than Earth. Originally it was said, that Krypton was a Jupiter sized planet, which would give it roughly a gravity up to 200X that of Earth. But even before we started finding planets with our telescopes data from simulation models already told us that solid planets don’t come that big nowhere in the cosmos. It’s shear size would tear it appart before it could form anything.
    Then they changed it to 33X the gravity of Earth, and although some models say it’s possible that a solid planet might reach the size required to have that kind of gravity, most likely the environment would be so extreme that nothing beyond bacteria or very small multicell organisms would exist. Something like worms or something like that.
    The most current version says Krypton has 5X the gravity of Earth, and of that size astronomers everywhere have found solid planets that size. Super-Earths they call them.
    Either way, increase gravity would be one of the effects of being hit by an energy beam of a hypernova, because it’s not just energy that’s hitting the planet it’s also matter. Highly energetic particles of matter, but matter none the same. That would lead to some degree of increase in gravity. How much would depend on each case. But lets stick to enough to create a 5X gravity that of Earth. Gravity in on itself doesn’t really matter except for one incredible important point. To examine the efficiency of lifeforms on that planet.
    In many variations of Krypton, it’s been shown that on Krypton lifeforms could reach sizes that far surpassed anything that exists on Earth.
    Now. All lifeforms develop according to their environment. If the planet has a light gravity and a weak sun, then genetics tells us that most likely lifeforms on that planet might reach high sizes but would also have poorly develop metabolisms, seeing that a M class star only puts out about 1/100 of our star energy, and they couldn’t have a high metabolism seeing that they’d most likely not have any means of getting the extra energy needed for that to happen. If the gravity was higher than that of Earth, than the size of lifeforms on the planet would be much smaller than ours. Not only to conserve energy but also because gravity would not allow for big lifeforms to develop.
    These are all facts. Not science fiction. Life develops accordingly to their environment.

    Now. On Krypton we have something that seemingly contradicts all of that. We have Earth size and gigantic size lifeforms on a planet that should not be able to support that kind of evolutionary road, so to speak.
    So what do we get from this?! That something on Krypton is already operating at a abnormal rate. Biology on that planet is far more complex than it should be. Something Super is already happening.
    The introduction of highly energetic matter could create such an abnormality. Because some types of energetic particles created in atomic accelerators, have shown that if exposed to poorly energetic environments, they themselves loose efficiency, but they still operate at above normal rate, than normal matter. So on Krypton we could and should have that. Lifeforms that had develop on a planet with, lets say, more complex isotopes of regular matter, that passed on to all lifeforms that developed on that planet creating beings with incredible biological capacities. One of which might well be, the ability to store and process the energy available but at an highly abnormal rate. Like organisms with bio-superconductive capabilites.
    And because of that bio-superconductivity, kryptonians once out of the poor energetic environment of Krypton and into a more strong and energetically rich environment, like that of Earth with our younger, strongest G class sun. Their physiology once exposed to the sunlight of a G class star, it most likely creates changes down to the subatomic level, were the space between protons and electrons actually diminuish, generating immense amounts of energy.
    Well. A body with such amount of energy available to it, would exhibit an enhancement in both physical and mental capacities. The physical part would be the absortion of the catalyst (the G class sun sunlight) required to make the atoms on their bodies operate at an incredible more efficient way, maybe even allowing kryptonian bodies to tap into the entire electromagnetic spectrum, creating an immense amount of energy. That energy in turn would allow the most basic aspects of biology to be improved in every way. More efficient, molecules, bones, blood, organs and skin. And with it, a much more durable and efficient body. All the while the brain would also go through changes. Parts of the brain kryptonians had no control over -much like we humans have very little to almost no control over our brains- could become accessible and even controlable, even if with certain limits. Could grant a kryptonian some control over the same energies that now course through their bodies and by a combination of psionic and physical properties. Kryptonians can manipulate and manifest their energies in very specific ways. Must likely linked to what their brains can handle.
    This would explain their powers.

    Has for kryptonite and red sunlight. The answer would be quite simple. Kryptonite already existed on Krypton, ever since the event, what we know has kryptonite was created and was part of the planet itself, must likely there’s even small amounts of kryptonite isotopes in kryptonian bodies, making them specially vulnerable to the radiation that it emits. The red sunlight, would work much like in the comics but with one major difference. A kryptonian would not lose his or her powers immediately but rather their bodies would simply start to revert back to their original basic forms has the energy in their bodies was spent, and their bodies had no way of recharging. So the loss wouldn’t be immediate both progressibly.

    And this is it.
    I had to cut a lot of stuff. But it was mainly equations and other scientific stuff that would make this like 50 pages long.
    This way you get an idea of what might have been possible if all the astronomically big game of chance, worked out exactly has it’s in the comics.

  • 15 Chris // Sep 5, 2015 at 10:32 pm

    I like your supposition about the Guardians, but I think you kind of answer your own question here. Let me explain.

    We, ourselves, are basically ‘allergic’ to Lead – which our own planetary core is supposedly composed of. If we are exposed to Lead, it poisons us too. The fact that the planet Krypton’s core would create a lethal substance when it exploded is not only logical, it makes perfect sense.

    This fact would also account for a great deal of the point that, on their home world, the Kryptonians would be powerless – regardless of their suns color, as well.

    I will admit, there is a certain kind of overt sense of coincidence about the fact the stuff is green, but, who’s to say our own planets core would not take on a different color when exposed to the complex magnetic and radioactive fields in space around us.

    I also agree that there is a lot of conflicting data on the matter, but, at least a few of the sources for info on Krypton state that the civilization on the planet is eons ahead of us. This would account for the suns change in color.

    Additionally, even for as advanced a society as the Kryptonians, I truly believe that the eons amount of time would account for the species losing its memory of the abilities of the past; heck, our own species has lost information in a fraction of that time that supposedly would change several aspects of our own culture significantly.

    (Greek fire for instance, or the fact that several chemical compounds that are a known fact to have existed prior to the modern age, which we cannot make even now with our ‘advanced’ knowledge.)

    Just some more food for thought…

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