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:: By Brooke E. O’Neill, AM’04

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Peer Review ::

The superhero within

Physics professor James Kakalios suits up to save science.

James Kakalios, SM’82, PhD’85, still remembers the day he reconnected with an old flame. He had just completed the first part of the physics candidacy exam required to begin dissertation research—a grueling three-day affair legendary for its difficulty. Stressed and weary, Kakalios wandered into a small card shop on 53rd Street. Suddenly there they were, neatly displayed in a spinner rack: X-Men, the Fantastic Four, Superman—all the crime-fighting adventurers he had abandoned years ago. He picked up an issue of X-Men, an early installment of the Dark Phoenix saga. Mention the storyline to fans and they nod knowingly. “Yeah,” a fellow aficionado once told Kakalios, “that would be like extra-sweet crack to get you hooked.”

Today Kakalios, a University of Minnesota physics professor and author of The Physics of Superheroes (Gotham Books, 2005), wants to pass his habit along to others. Born out of a 2001 freshman course titled Everything I Need To Know about Science I Learned from Reading Comic Books, his book covers an introductory physics curriculum transformed through the power of caped crusaders. “I hope you will be so busy enjoying this superhero ice-cream sundae,” says Kakalios, “that you won’t realize that I am sneakily getting you to eat your spinach at the same time.”

How exactly do superheroes teach force, motion, and velocity? Take the classic storyline in Amazing Spider-Man #121, which Kakalios describes as “a textbook illustration of impulse and momentum.” When the Green Goblin kidnaps Spidey’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy, he lures the superhero to battle atop a bridge. During the fight the Goblin knocks Gwen from the structure, and she plummets toward the river below. Spider-Man shoots his webbing and, just in time, catches her in his net. But when he reels her back up, he is devastated to discover she is dead. For years fans debated whether the fall—or the impact with the webbing—did in poor Gwen.

Kakalios put the controversy to rest. Using Newton’s second law of motion, he determined that the force of the webbing needed to stop her fall would be nearly ten times greater than Gwen’s weight—enough to be fatal given the velocity of her descent. “While certain fighter pilots can survive these forces in padded, reinforced suits and chairs,” he explains, “it wouldn’t be a shock that someone’s neck would break.”

In dozens of such examples, plotlines and physics intersect. Of course, some suspension of disbelief is required. Invariably, he notes, “a character with superpowers involves violations of the laws of nature.” Once readers grant a “miracle exception”—that is, buy into the Flash’s super speed or Superman’s super strength—most stories display surprising scientific accuracy.

Kakalios, a 1990 National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator who has done groundbreaking work on hydrogenated amorphous silicon, began publicizing his physics/superhero lessons in spring 2002, when Sony Pictures released Spider-Man. He submitted an essay to the Minneapolis Star Tribune on the Gwen Stacy controversy and instantly became the media’s go-to expert for superhero commentary. “Anytime I can get a discussion of Newton’s second law of motion into the newspaper,” he says, “that’s a good thing.”

His colleagues have voiced similar sentiments. From the American Physics Society to the National Academy of Science, scientists acknowledge a need for greater communication with the public. The notion of physicists holing up in an ivory-tower lab is no longer tenable, says Kakalios, nor should it be. Of course, he admits to his own agenda: “Obviously I’m biased,” he quips. “I think that everyone should have at least one degree in physics.”

While not every reader will become a physicist, Kakalios’s approach draws students from all walks of life. His freshman seminar—in which comic books are required reading—is geared toward nonphysics majors and attracts both students who enjoyed high-school physics and die-hard superhero followers. And yes, confesses Kakalios, “excessive nerdly discussions” are not unusual. Targeted at “both longtime comic-book fans and those who can’t tell Batman from Man-Bat,” The Physics of Superheroes minimizes scientific jargon. He credits his wife and editorial adviser, Therese Brown Kakalios, AM’81, with keeping him in line. “Marry an English major,” he encourages science writers. As for his students, “apparently, they all have plans, post-graduation, that involve spandex and protecting the city from all threats,” he says, adding that he no longer hears grumbling about physics’ lack of everyday relevance.

In fact, comic books may be even more pertinent than Kakalios envisioned. Absent the answers-in-the-back section of a traditional textbook, they force students to use common sense and other checks to verify homework responses. It’s “exactly the type of critical thinking,” he says, “that we do when we’re doing research.”

In his own laboratory research, Kakalios juggles two projects, “the nano and the neuro.” The first investigates the properties of amorphous semiconductors with nanocrystalline inclusions for solar-cell applications, while the other is a collaboration with a neuroscientist studying neurological voltage fluctuations. Any connection to the comic-book world? Absolutely none, confirms Kakalios. “We’re not trying to develop antigravity cells or anything,” he kids, “unless that grant comes through.”

Meanwhile, he relishes the role of superhero expert, where serious debates over the chemical composition of Captain America’s shield are all in a day’s work. “From a geek’s point of view,” he brags, “I have the greatest job in the universe.”