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Executive Insights

Digital Debunking: Could Spider-Man Really Stop a Train with His Web?

By Mamdouh Refaat | Chief Data Scientist | June 22, 2023

It may be a little uncommon to see a Digital Debunking article in the Executive Insights section of the Altair Newsroom, but I felt that given the recent release of “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” now was a great time to write a follow-up to my previous article, where I studied Spider-Man’s superhero abilities using Altair® RapidMiner®. But before we dive into our new analysis, let’s recap what I covered in that first article.


My Findings from the Previous Article

First, I found that Spider-Man’s web silk has an ultimate tensile strength (UTS) of approximately 310 gigapascals (GPa). I arrived at that conclusion by first training a machine learning model using real-world data from spiders, and then scoring that model using the data we know about Spider-Man – mainly that he’s 5 feet and 9 inches tall and weighs 165 pounds. I also studied the mechanics of Spider-Man swinging from his web and showed that the web can withstand any swing you can throw at it (as long as it’s 100 tons or lighter). 

Secondly, we found that, within official Spider-Man lore, there’s evidence he can lift lift tanks that weigh more than 22,000 pounds (10,000 kilograms). That means that not only is Spider-Man’s silk strong, he is too – you have to be in pretty good shape to lift almost 10 tons. 

With these facts in mind, I wanted to investigate a few more questions, mainly centered around the iconic scene in 2004's "Spider-Man 2" where Spider-Man stops a subway train. I wanted to find out a few things: Could Spider-Man really stop a train using his web? How much force would he have had to endure? Could his grip strength withstand this force? 

Spider-Man and his web might be strong, but could he stop a train? Let’s find out.


The Speed and Distance Calculations

To answer these questions, I simplified the methodology so I wouldn’t need to use simulation or machine learning software as I did in the last article. But I used simple mechanics and close observations of the scene of Spider-Man stopping the train. 

First, I analyzed the aforementioned clip of Spider-Man stopping the train. In it, we see that he used six webs from each arm to stop the train in 43 seconds. The New York subway system can reach a maximum speed of 55 miles per hour, which is roughly 89 kilometers per hour (or 24.7 meters/second). The mass of each subway car (including passengers) is about 40,000 kilograms. And since the train slowed down from 55 miles per hour to a complete stop in 43 seconds, we can calculate the rate of deceleration as simply 24.7/43=0.575 m/s2 – that’s a 0.575 m/s rate of deceleration. 

To put that number in perspective, a jet plane decelerates on the runway during landing at an acceleration of about 3-5 m/s2, 6-10x the rate the subway train was subject to. It looked dramatic in the movie, but really, it was not as hard of a stop as it looked. 


The Force Calculations

Next, I calculated the force needed to stop the train in 43 seconds. A New York subway train normally has between 8-11 cars; to make things easy, let’s say this train had 10 cars. As such, the total force needed to create this deceleration is the mass of the train (about 40,000 kilograms) multiplied by the acceleration:

Force to stop the train (in 43 seconds) = 10 (subway cars) x 40,000 (weight of one subway car) x 0.575 (rate of deceleration) = 230,000 Newtons. 

Spider-Man used six webs in each arm (twelve total webs) to exert that force on the buildings surrounding the subway line. That means each silk would have carried a total force of 230,000/12 = 19,166 Newtons – or roughly 1.9 tons per silk. In the last article I confirmed, using machine learning, that each silk could take up to 100 tons, so this should be an easy task. 

But oddly, when I examined that clip closely, I saw that some of the web tore under the load of the force exerted upon it. There are two explanations for this. First, if the web was extended beyond its maximum strain (deformation), then it could break. The second explanation is that the director, Sam Raimi, instructed it to break for dramatic effect! I’m no movie director, so I will reserve judgement on the timing of dramatic effect. But personally, and as my calculations show, I don’t think the web would have broken. 


The Grip Strength Calculations

Now, to stop the train, each of Spider-Man’s arms would have needed to shoulder a load of 110,000 Newtons (or about 12 tons). The clip showed Spider-Man pulling the webs using his grip. So, the question is: Could Spider-Man’s grip handle that force? 

To answer that question, I first tried to find out what an average human can lift with their grip strength. Benedikt Magnússon currently holds the world record deadlift for his 1,015-pound (460.4 kilograms, or 4,516 Newtons) hoist without equipment (special grip or wrist straps) in 2011. So, in principle, a human being, when pushed to the limit, could theoretically pull a force of half that (2,258 Newtons) per arm. Unfortunately, Spider-Man would have had to pull 50x that load to stop the subway train! 

I also looked at these numbers from a different angle. Magnússon weighed about 330 pounds (150 kilograms) when he set his deadlift record. This is only 3x his body weight. However, scientists observed that Darwin’s bark spider, which lives in Madagascar, can carry almost 170x its body weight. So, if Spider-Man weighs 165 pounds (75 kilograms) and wants to earn his name, he should be able to perform as well as Darwin’s bark spider. That means he should be able to lift 170 (body weight factor) x 75 (body weight in kilograms) = 12,750 kilograms. Each arm should have a pull force of 6,375 kilograms or 62,538 Newtons. Spider-Man should be able to perform at that level without difficulty – as a real spider can. 

The problem is that this is about only half of what was required in that scene. However watching that clip again to the end, we can see that it was not an easy task for our favorite web-slinging hero. He almost fainted when the train stopped, and would have fallen off if not for the passenger holding him. So, showing an exhausted Spider-Man at the end of this clip is realistic given that he pushed himself to pull his webs with double the force that he’s used to using. Perhaps he gathered some extra strength from a well-sustained burst of adrenaline. In any case, the science confirms that the scene is perfect! 

I look forward to seeing “Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse,” through which we will be able to learn more about him and collect valuable data for our next study.

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