In a recent episode of Flash Wells teaches the title character to "phase through walls". I am not a physicist, but Wells's explanation of how this is done ("if you vibrate at the natural frequency of air your body, your cells will be in a state of excitement that should allow you to phase right through that wall") sounds like gibberish peppered with physicsy words, see also Vibration as a means of passing through solid objects? Internet discussions bring up quantum tunneling, but even aside from not working on large objects tunneling does not seem to involve any "phasing" or "vibrating" of anything.

Still, if memory serves "phasing through" is a recurring theme in Sci-Fi. Where did it come from? Was it motivated by any actual physical effect? Who used it first, and why "phasing" instead of say "tunneling"?

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    "Tunneling" implies making a hole, so would not be a good choice. And "gibberish peppered with physicsy words" is a mainstay of the lighter science-fiction genre, not to mention the comic-book genre where The Flash originates. :-) – Harry Johnston Mar 24 '16 at 2:48
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    As for "phasing" as a word, it derives from the concept of being "out of phase", i.e., no longer interacting with the physical world. No idea when it first originated though, hopefully someone has some ideas. Star Trek? Earlier? – Harry Johnston Mar 24 '16 at 2:49
  • @HarryJohnston I think earlier. Take a look at the answers to this question: scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/23315/… – rosesunhill Mar 24 '16 at 2:55
  • @HarryJohnston "Out of phase with the world" is more like what I remember! It is almost reminiscent of string theory, and makes more sense to me than Wells's version (why air???). But "phasing" has to be much older than string theory, right? I wonder who came up with "out of phase" theory, and based on what. – lantern Mar 24 '16 at 3:21
  • Are you asking about any kind of passing through solid matter explained by sci-fi gobbledegook, or does it have to specifically use vibrations? – user14111 Mar 24 '16 at 5:35

The earliest example of matter interpenetrating due to being "out of phase" that I'm aware of was in Gray Lensman, which was first serialized in 1939:

Cardynge says it's simple. Maybe it is, but I'm a technician myself, not a mathematician. As near as I can get it, the Overlords and their stuff were treated or conditioned with an oscillatory of some kind, so that under the combined actions of the fields generated by the ship and the shore station all their substance was rotated almost out of space. Not out of space, exactly, either, more like, say, very nearly one hundred and eighty degrees out of phase; so that two bodies - one untreated, our stuff - could occupy the same place at the same time without perceptible interference. The failure of either force, such as your cutting the ship's generators, would relive the strain.

Gray Lensman, 1951 novel version, chapter sixteen.

[Edit.] According to Hypnosifl's answer, The Flash's ability to move through solid matter was not introduced until 1959, and from the looks of it did not at first use the word "phasing". So whether or not the 1939 serialization of Gray Lensman used the same wording, the 1951 novel still predates the usage by The Flash.

  • This is also interesting: in the years before Grey Lensman was first serialized and The Flash was created, the phrase "out of phase" shows a sharp jump in popularity. This might be from a previous popular work of fiction, but I think just as likely to be non-fictional usage, perhaps related to the 1935 establishment of the Rural Electric Administration in the US? – Harry Johnston Mar 24 '16 at 22:26
  • Compare to usage of the phrase "gamma rays" which peaked a few years before The Hulk was first created in 1962. Basically, I'd guess that comic books (and other science fiction works) just have a natural tendency to pick up on trending ideas, even (or perhaps especially) if they are widely misunderstood. :-) – Harry Johnston Mar 24 '16 at 22:29
  • Perhaps, Everett and Susskind were reading Lensman in their youth :-) – lantern Mar 25 '16 at 0:20
  • According to our friend the [ISFDB]((isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?1200), and as expected, all English-language versions of the novel in question were titled Gray Lensman except the 1972 British edition Grey Lensman. – user14111 Mar 25 '16 at 6:17
  • @user14111: which, by a not so strange coincidence, is the edition I own. (Well, the 1977 reprint.) But yes, in this context I should probably have thought to use the American spelling. – Harry Johnston Mar 25 '16 at 6:28

According to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction article on Matter Penetration:

The ability to walk through walls or be otherwise transported through solid matter is a wish-fulfilment fantasy less prevalent than Invisibility, perhaps owing to its greater scientific implausibility. The first sf example is perhaps "The Ray of Displacement" (October 1903 The Metropolitan Magazine) by Harriet Prescott Spofford, whose titular Ray diffuses an individual's atoms and allows him to slide through solid matter (also granting effective Invisibility).

The story is available from the Hathi Trust Digital Library; "The Ray of Displacement" is on pp. 37-47 of the October 1903 issue (Vol. 19, No. 1). Here is an excerpt:

Of course, you already know that all molecules, all atoms, are separated from each other by spaces perhaps as great, when compared relatively, as those which separate the members of the stellar universe. And when by my Y ray I could so far increase these spaces that I could pass one solid body through another, owing to the differing situation of their atoms, I felt no disembodied spirit had wider, freer range than I. Until my discovery was made public my power over the material universe was practically unlimited.

Well, there is nothing there about vibrations. If you insist on vibrations, I'm sure there must be something much earlier, but for now I'll follow the Science Fiction Encyclopedia's suggestion and mention Harry Harrison's short story "Rock Diver", first published in Worlds Beyond, February 1951 (available at the Internet Archive):

The outcropping sheltered him as he fumbled for the switch at his side. A shrill whine built up in the steel box slung at his belt. The sudden hiss of released oxygen was cut off as he snapped shut the faceplate of his helmet. Pete clambered onto the granite ridge that pushed up through the frozen ground.

He stood straight against the wind now, not feeling its pressure, the phantom snowflakes swirling through his body. Following the outcropping, he slowly walked into the ground. The top of his helmet bobbed for a second like a bottle in water, then sank below the surface of the snow.

Underground it was warmer, the wind and cold left far behind; Pete stopped and shook the snow from his suit. He carefully unhooked the ultra-light from his pack and switched it on. The light beam, polarized to his own mass-penetrating frequency, reached out through the layers of surrounding earth as if they were cloudy gelatine.

Pete had been a rock diver for eleven years, but the sight of this incredible environment never ceased to amaze him. He took the miracle of his vibratory penetrator, the rock diver's "walk-through", for granted. It was just a gadget, a good gadget, but something he could take apart and fix if he had to. The important thing was what it did to the world around him.

  • Interestingly, in the classic Slan, the main character uses a reverse process to make stronger steel by moving the atoms in the unit cell closer together, thereby increasing the density of the steel. That always made me laugh. – Broklynite Mar 24 '16 at 8:02
  • Of course, if you could alter your body to phase through solid matter, your biggest problem would be gravity. You'd be through the ground in seconds. – John Sensebe Mar 24 '16 at 19:43
  • Thank you for the answer. I am especially interested in "out of phase, i.e. no longer interacting with the physical world" version of the explanation (especially if it happened before 1960s) because it reminds me some valid physical ideas (e.g. string vibrations manifesting different kinds of particles which only interact if "in synch", or Everett's branches). – lantern Mar 24 '16 at 19:56

There is a book about the science of super powers form a phicis called Kakalios, here is the quote

There is no doubt how The Flash, both the Golden and Silver Age versions, is able to use his great speed to pass through solid objects, as shown in fig. 33. He is able to increase his kinetic energy to the point where the probability, from the Schrodinger equation, of passing through the wall becomes nearly certain."

He also uses quantum tunneling as an explanation but he says that the flash vibrates to increase the kinetic energy to facilitate this effect. Not that it makes this a lot clearer, to me at least, but it's a bit mor sophisticated than just throwing vibration and phasing around.

By the way I have no idea who was the first one to use the term phase (maybe the original star trk series with the phasers?).

  • Unfortunately, this doesn't really work, because the Schrodinger tunneling probability as people generally understand it falls apart at relativistic speeds (you'd probably be using the wrong equation, to start with). The point is, tunneling probability does not uniformly increase at high energy. – Adamant Mar 24 '16 at 6:41

For a possible early version of this (though not specifically based on vibrations), there's a section of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895) where it was explained that a small version of the time machine had become both invisible (and also intangible, since a character passes his hand through the space it had been seen to occupy before it disappeared) even though it was still occupying the same space, due to the fact that it was traveling forward through time more quickly then ordinary objects. From the online version from project Gutenberg, from Chapter 1:

After an interval the Psychologist had an inspiration. 'It must have gone into the past if it has gone anywhere,' he said.

'Why?' said the Time Traveller.

'Because I presume that it has not moved in space, and if it travelled into the future it would still be here all this time, since it must have travelled through this time.'

'But,' I said, 'If it travelled into the past it would have been visible when we came first into this room; and last Thursday when we were here; and the Thursday before that; and so forth!'

'Serious objections,' remarked the Provincial Mayor, with an air of impartiality, turning towards the Time Traveller.

'Not a bit,' said the Time Traveller, and, to the Psychologist: 'You think. You can explain that. It's presentation below the threshold, you know, diluted presentation.'

'Of course,' said the Psychologist, and reassured us. 'That's a simple point of psychology. I should have thought of it. It's plain enough, and helps the paradox delightfully. We cannot see it, nor can we appreciate this machine, any more than we can the spoke of a wheel spinning, or a bullet flying through the air. If it is travelling through time fifty times or a hundred times faster than we are, if it gets through a minute while we get through a second, the impression it creates will of course be only one-fiftieth or one-hundredth of what it would make if it were not travelling in time. That's plain enough.' He passed his hand through the space in which the machine had been. 'You see?' he said, laughing.

Also, since the question was inspired by The Flash, it might be worth mentioning that according to this page, his ability to "vibrate" through solid matter debuted in Flash #109 from 1959. Here's the page they reference, which explains that the Flash "can penetrate a solid wall because the molecules of his body in super-vibration slide past the molecules of the wall":

enter image description here

  • Thank you, this is very interesting. The comic makes a bit more sense than the TV series with its "air", I saw "sliding past" idea discussed on Physics SE also. The Time Machine version is probably closer to the "phasing out", albeit in time rather than space. I accepted Harry Johnston's answer because it addresses "phasing" directly. – lantern Mar 25 '16 at 0:28

Here are some earlier examples which may or may not qualify depending on how you interpret the question and how you interpret the pseudoscience in those old stories. These are stories about other worlds or "dimensions" which are "parallel" or "coexistent" with our own, separated from our world by "vibration". I may be wrong but it seems to me that, as you wander about in one parallel world, you are necessarily passing through solid objects in the other world. Unfortunately, and this may be a disqualifying point, the worlds are usually said to have different vibratory rates, quite a different thing (as I understand it) from being out of phase. The quotations below are from Bleiler's reviews in Science-Fiction: The Early Years or Science-Fiction: The Gernsback Years.

1921: The Blind Spot, a novel by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint, was originally published as a serial in Argosy All-Story Weekly starting 14 May 1921; it has a Wikipedia page and is available at Project Gutenberg. There is a sequel, The Spot of Life by Austin Hall.

The exact nature of the Blind Spot is revealed only diffidently, but it seems to be a gateway between parallel worlds that coexist at different vibratory rates, hence are mutually imperceptible. A fuller explanation, with larger implications, is given in "The Spot of Life."

1927: "Below the Infra Red", a short story by George Paul Bauer, appeared in Amazing Stories, December 1927, available at the Internet Archive.

Place: A parallel world separated from ours by vibratory rate. * The narrator becomes acquainted with Professor Carl Winter, who reveals his discoveries. Winter theorizes that there are worlds of experience cut off from us because we cannot see infrared and lower light, or hear ultra sound. Winter has now constructed a machine that will enable himself and the narrator to witness this new world. * Seated in the apparatus, the two men see a new world, perfect-looking humans in a wonderful landscape. And then the men discover that they are in the other-world, which the professor describes as defined by a different rate of vibration.

1928: "The Blue Dimension", a short story by Francis Flagg (pseudonym of George Henry Weiss), appeared in Amazing Stories, June 1928.

Place: California and an other-world. * The young man who assisted Crewe in his experiments is justifying himself, proclaiming that he did not really murder Crewe. * Crewe, a specialist in optics, explains to the narrator that we perceive only a limited range of vibrations, and that there are vibratory groups which amount to other-worlds. Crewe then produces a pair of spectacles for seeing into the other-world. What the men see is a blue world, with strange vegetation and odd animal life. There are gigantic, semi-humanoid beings with extensible tentacle "arms," a more civilized and smaller brownish form of similar humanoid life; and a strange city, into the buildings of which the doctor and the narrator cannot look, for unexplained reasons. Crewe has also invented a roller press-like arrangement, which, as he demonstrates with mice, can transfer things to the other-world. Against the wishes of the narrator, Crewe now hops into the machine, emerging into the other-world as a gigantic being. For a while the narrator loses sight of him, but when Crewe returns and signals that he wishes to be retrieved, there is a difficulty. He neglected to transfer a vibrator to the other-world, so that he is now stranded. He signals for food, which the narrator sends, but when the narrator drops the dimensional spectacles, they no longer function, and there is no telling what has happened to Crewe.

1931: "Through the Vibrations", a novelette by P. Schuyler Miller, was originally published in Amazing Stories, May 1931.

Dr. Alexander Gregory, scientific genius, theorizes that the extremely high wavelength of matter can be altered, permitting entry to other frames of existence. He has constructed an apparatus that functions on the basis of his theory, and he and his friend Jack, the narrator, decide to explore a different mode of existence. Donning space suits with radiation insulation, air supply, strap-on helicopters, and attached tool kits, they translate themselves into an other-world. This parallel, interpenetrating world is much like Earth, but with slightly different gravity and atmosphere, different colorations, and a large, cool, green sun. * As the men explore, they come upon a gigantic building mass with which is associated an incredibly powerful ventilation system leading to an inner world. The two men descend with their tiny helicopters and find the ruins of an enormous, beautiful city, within which is much human statuary. Gregory, on more exploration, declares that the dead civilization was that of Atlantis, which must have been translated from our world by a resonance apparatus similar to his own. As corroboration, he tells that back on Earth he had found a continuation of Plato's Timaeus, which described a situation that could be interpreted in this fashion. As for the population of the underground city, it lies in dust, consumed by a horrible fungus.

  • Very nice sampler. I think vibratory rates are problematic if they are applied to mechanical vibrations of material objects, which is why Flash quote makes little sense, but your quotes are more subtle. It is conceivable that familiar matter particles are manifested by vibratory modes of some more fundamental objects, and when the frequencies are too far apart the interaction is very weak, so effectively we get separate worlds. String theory employs something like that. – lantern Mar 26 '16 at 19:03

This is an addition to all the other references but not an improvement on the earliest date. However I find it interesting that it is just before the time of Hypnosifl's answer on the Flash.

1958 Adventuers of Superman TV series episode "The Mysterious Cube" .

The scientist postulates that Superman might be able to alter his molecules so that he would be able to pass through anything solid; but he is warned that since the cube is made of an unknown material, he might not get out again. When Superman tries to get through, he learns of Lois and Jimmy, so he gets out before going all the way in.

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