There may have been a time when the idea of a classic DC Comics Rogue like Mirror Master appearing on The Flash would have been deemed a little too far-fetched. Boomerangs, Cold Guns, Weather Wizards and robotic bee armies, sure… but a bad guy who uses the power of mirrors to rob banks and battle a speedster? No amount of pseudo-scientific jargon or ‘updating’ could bring that fiction anywhere close to believable… or could it?
With “The New Rogues” having introduced the world of Flash TV fans to Sam Scudder a.k.a. Mirror Master (Grey Damon), audiences may be left scratching their heads. The cast of characters threw more than a few scientific terms, concepts, or theoretical solutions around as they worked to defeat these new villains, so we couldn’t help but take a closer look at what the writers had concocted. While Mirror Master’s powers may not be based in reality, the science and phenomena referenced most definitely is – and may not be quite as ‘silly’ or ‘made up’ as you might think.
We’ve already asked if Captain Cold could really freeze a laser beam, so here’s our second look at The Real Science of Flash‘s Mirror Master Explained.
Evan McCulloch’s ‘Mirror Gun’
The minds behind the show made it clear that they would be removing one of the goofiest aspects of the characters in his adaptation to the small screen, instead offering a slight twist on his powers. But that doesn’t mean no mention was made of the Rogue’s famous “Mirror Gun,” here ascribed to the Earth-2 version of the villain, known as ‘Evan McCulloch.’ Comic book die hards will know that it’s a bit of creative origin twisting, since the original version of the villain is Scudder, with McCulloch only picking up the costume and weaponry of the Mirror Master in the modern era (the one time Earth-2 is actually ahead of the show’s universe).
In the show, Wells describes McCulloch’s abilities as based on “dimensional warping tech that changed everything into two dimensions.” That’s in keeping with the original fiction, in which Scudder’s gun was capable of doing… well, just about anything to do with light. Create holograms, trap people in mirrors, create new mirror gadgets for the task at hand, or travel from one reflective surface to another. The secret, as hinted at in that description, was a ‘mirror dimension’ that existed alongside our own. But that’s pure imagination from the comic book world – let’s get to the science in the TV version.
Creating Wormholes Through Reflections
First things first: if there’s one reason viewers will immediately dismiss the powers shown above, it’s the fundamental belief that there’s nothing “happening” when a mirror reflects an image back at the viewer. Light hits the reflective surface, reflects, and the eyes receive the light and image, right? It may be a surprise – and an understandable one – but that’s actually a fundamental mis-characterization of the physics at work. And the real crux of the issue begins with photons – the hard-to-define form of light energy that behaves, put simply, like ‘packets’ of energy.
When a photon is traveling from a person’s face to the mirror in front of them, for example, the information contained in it isn’t reflected at all: it travels through the transparent glass on the surface, and is absorbed as energy by the atoms of the silver, aluminum, or other metal layered beneath it. But there’s a problem: most elements don’t like gaining extra energy, since it causes them to become excited and unstable. The natural urge is to return to its normal state, which means expelling the excess energy as a new photon – directly back in the direction from which it was received.
It’s a difficult idea to wrap your head around – that reflective surfaces aren’t “deflecting,” but getting excited on an atomic level, and firing out new photons (reflections) to compensate – so take a look at this video from A Moment of Science below:
So now that we know exactly what is happening when light is striking a mirror, we can make some sense of Mirror Master’s powers, described by Harrison Wells as the ability to “link Einstein-Rosen bridges to anything with high solar reflectance.” Solar reflectance is exactly what it sounds like: the rate at which a surface or material can totally, or near-totally reflect all of the light energy (photons) smashing into it. If a mirror, window, or polished surface stays cool to the touch even in sunlight, for instance, it’s solar reflectance is high since most of that energy is being re-radiated (in this case, as visual light).
As for the “Einstein-Rosen bridge” part… well, that’s where the science fiction kicks in. Better known as ‘wormholes,’ Wells is postulating that – thanks to an unknown metahuman gift from the particle accelerator explosion – Scudder is able to form these tears through time and space from one reflective surface to another. As we clarified above, that means linking one energized, hyperactive surface of material to another. The problem here is that wormholes have yet to actually be created or proven, and forming one observable to the naked eye for anything longer than a split second would probably require more negative energy than mankind could come up with.
The Flash doesn’t take the extra step in explaining how Scudder does it, but there is a clue. Scudder is seemingly trapped inside of the mirror he first merges with for three years – until sunlight shines on the surface, allowing him to stabilize the wormhole (most likely thanks to his metahuman power, perhaps ‘fed’ by sunlight?) long enough to escape. It’s clearly imagination at work: explicitly shown by the fact that these surfaces, while all exhibiting the same energetic reaction, are somehow linked together as part of a ‘Mirror World’ or dimension one could be trapped inside of. So not sound science, but based on more science than you might think.
Breaking Barry Out of The Mirror
No need to beat around the bush here: there’s no real science behind Barry Allen being trapped inside one of Mirror Master’s… mirrors. Even if we stick with the wormhole idea, Barry being pulled into one end of it and then remaining there after it closes flies in the face of all we know about Einstein-Rosen Bridges (if the passageway collapses, Barry should cease to exist – comic books!). But allowing for some sci-fi magic, the question of actually removing Barry from the mirror state is based on accepted scientific terms that may fly over most viewers’ heads.
The basic problem: Barry must vibrate his molecules at a speed needed to essentially phase out of the mirror and into the real world. To do it, Wells, informs Caitlin Snow that “we need the mirror to maintain zero point energy long enough for Barry’s molecules to pass through it.” The basic idea is simple, now that we’ve laid out why the mirror itself – or Barry’s reflection in it – isn’t stable, but in a state of excitement (why his friends can see him at all). Most people know that as the temperature drops, molecules become less energetic, more tightly-packed together, and ideally, motionless.
The problem is that in our world, nothing is motionless. Even at absolute zero – the lowest possible temperature, at which point you would think all energy and motion would stop – there is motion, and energy. To hear it put even more simply, take it from Nobel Prize-winning physicist William Phillips:
The amount of energy still present when the substance has reached zero, or ‘zero point energy’ is still too unstable for Barry to be made whole, and phase out (there are other uses of the term, but this one is all viewers need to worry about). Wells then restates the problem, since the absolute zero reached by the Cold Gun can’t “account for the internal energy of the mirror’s molecules as well.” They throw out the term “enthalpy state” for good measure, which simply means the thermodynamic energy contained inside the mirror.
In short: absolute zero won’t slow the movement of the mirror’s molecules completely, which means they’ll need something able to take it even colder than science allows. Cue Caitlin’s metahuman freezing ability – which can now be understood not as ’emitting cold,’ but actually ‘withdrawing heat’ (giving another interpretation of the physical effect the act has on her at the episode’s close).
Now, why do these molecules need to be motionless for Barry to phase through, but the movement of other obstacles he’s encountered not mattered? That’s a question for the writers.
The Droste Effect
Barry Allen winds up defeating Mirror Master by luring him into a hall of mirrors, smashing plenty to limit the Rogue’s ability’s to pop out behind him. The final trap comes in the form of a circle of mirrors surrounding Scudder, an “infinite reflective loop” that is inescapable, even for someone able to travel from mirror to mirror. The “Droste Effect” referred to by Barry is a very real phenomenon, but this isn’t the actual instance most people will be familiar with. And just as a warning, “infinitely reflective” doesn’t mean a mirror’s reflection, either.
The name actually comes from an advertising campaign by Droste Cocoa, a Dutch company that used a drawing of a nurse carrying a box of cocoa… with her picture on it, carrying a box of cocoa with her picture on it, carrying… you get the idea. It’s since been used in too many pop culture forms to count, from album covers to celebrity t-shirts. But the Droste Effect itself has come to be a shorthand for any theory, thing, or statement that reflects on itself paradoxically. In critical thinking, it’s the inescapable logic loop of “this statement is false.”
With mirrors, it’s the sensation of standing in between two reflective surfaces, and seeing an unending tunnel of reflections. Or, in the case of The Flash, it’s stacking a field of mirrors around Sam Scudder so no matter what reflective surface he attempts to travel into or through, he’s emerging out of the same small number, back where he started. This added wrinkle suggests that Mirror Master’s power may actually limit him to moving through reflections he can see – perhaps only see in another reflection? – but either way, he’s outsmarted.
So there you have it, Flash fans: mirrors may be more suited to metahuman manipulation than the average person would believe, wormholes are still a thing of unreachable sci-fi, Caitlin Snow’s powers don’t work the way you’d immediately think, and Barry Allen is a fan of strange loops of logic or critical reflection. Who knew?
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