Monday, November 19, 2007

A shocking explanation

WARNING: Mild spoilers to follow, if you haven't seen tonight's Heroes.

I can't believe I'm actually going to discuss electrical theory in the same sentence as a show about superheroes, but goddamn it, people who write Heroes, electricity doesn't work like that!

Electricity, like all other forms of energy in the universe, flows from areas of greater concentration to areas of lesser concentration (or as electrical engineers say, from higher to lesser potential). You get electrocuted only when you complete the circuit between those two potentials, which is why birds don't get fried when they perch on power lines. It's also why rubber boots/gloves/mats keep you safe from electricity, because they insulate -- rubber doesn't conduct electricity, and therefore prevents a circuit from forming between voltage, you, and the ground.

So what HRG did to Elle tonight is completely wrong. Again, I know it's rather silly to discuss physics in a show about superheroes, but there are certain expectations of logic in a medium such as this. For example, if a hero had fire powers, you would expect that his power would not work if he were, say, immersed in water.* Likewise, since Elle has electrical powers, you would expect that her powers follow the basic rules of electrical current.

How's that, you ask? Excellent question, Voices in My Head! Allow me to explain!

As I stated above, you only get shocked if you are in the link between high and low potential. But since Elle generates electricity, she is high potential! It doesn't matter that she's been sprayed with water and her feet are in a tub, her electricity will not harm her for the same reason that water doesn't flow uphill and skittles make a mess on the floor when the bag breaks: the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

Interestingly enough, the basic effect -- neutralizing her power -- could be easily achieved by chaining her to a metal stake buried in the ground, because the volume of the planet has much lower electrical potential than, well, anything else on Earth, and is quite happy to absorb however many volts you care to throw at it. This is, in fact, how lightning rods work.

So I guess I'm incensed because it's both poor science and poor writing. Elle doesn't need to get shocked; the scene isn't supposed to convey great irony or poetic comeuppance. It's sole purpose is to say "Hey, I've neutralized your power; now you must do as I say." This entire mess could have been avoided if a writer somewhere had simply done his homework and not decided to get cute.

Now playing: Apoptygma Berzerk - Electricity
via FoxyTunes

*Unless you gave some sort of handwaving explanation about how water is really only hydrogen and oxygen, both of which burn, and then proceeded to have the character engage in some really terrifying atomic-scale manipulation. Or possibly overheat his own body, boiling the water into its components. Either way, it will in all likelihood be very painful for said hero....


  1. But if you remember all the lables on hair dryers and curling irons about not letting them fall into the bathtub, or using them in the shower, putting Elle in a tub of water seems logical.

  2. SEEMS logical, yes, but it's wrong. Here's why:

    You're in the bath and you drop your hairdryer, plugged in and running, into the water with you. Assuming a fuse doesn't blow (which it should), the electricity will take the following path:

    120 volt wall socket -> hair dryer -> water -> you -> bathtub -> house -> ground.

    You can clearly see how the energy flows "downhill", traveling from higher potential to low.

    But in Elle's case, she is both the wall socket AND "you". There's no way the energy could flow back into her and hurt her for the same reason that water cannot flow INTO a faucet when it's running.

    Notice how I explained all this without using math? I'm not an electrical engineer. I've just had some experience with voltage, and the rest is due to research. If I can do it, so can the writers.

  3. But remember, Elle's brain had been somewhat fried due to cruel testing on her when she was a child. so maybe not all of her generates electricty, and those parts of her get shocked?

  4. I suppose it's possible for her to generate a low-potential area in one part of her body while generating a high-potential area in another.

    ... but that means she would electrocute herself every time she uses her powers. And judging from what we've seen of her, this is clearly not the case.

  5. Every time you try to drag real physics into a discussion about a comic God kills a cat girl.

    Please think of the cat girls!

  6. Something you might appreciate, based on this post, in the pilot episode for British paranormal show "Strange", the main character, a defrocked priest, was attacked by an electricity-wielding demon.

    In a metal elevator. He was fine. Demon knew how to use his power, just wasn't up to snuff on all the modern technological advances.

    On the other hand, you had Mutant X, which very clearly stated that if whatshisprettyface with the lightning hands used his power while knee deep in water, he'd fry himself. Television writers...*tsk* no wonder they're on strike.


The Fine Print

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Creative Commons License

Erin Palette is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to