suffers from thea stereotype as a relatively boring field. But what if instead
of studying particles, you were studying superheroes? Professor James Kakalios
weaves Shrodinger with Superman, merging two seemingly incompatible subjects
into a tandem to rival Batman and Robin.
part of Ohio University’s Kennedy Lecture Series, Kakalios spoke in Memorial
Auditorium Wednesday night, exploring the physics behind the superhuman acts of
America’s comic-book and big-screen idols. Kakalios secured his doctorate in
physics from the University of Chicago, and became a professor at the
University of Minnesota. In 2001 at Minnesota where he is now a distinguished
professor of physics, he developed a course titled “Everything I Know About
Science I Learned From Reading Comic Books.”
Kakalios’ course generated curiosity and interest nationwide. He penned an
op-ed piece in a local paper purporting to prove that scientific elements of
Spiderman are accurate; it was published coinciding with the release of the
first Spiderman movie in 2002. The tale of this unorthodox physicist and his
incorporation of juvenile heroes into university lectures was recounted
worldwide. The publicity spiraled into a book, “The Physics of Superheroes.”
and unimposing, Kakalios is obviously a mortal man. This means that he cannot
explain where the powers of superheroes come from. What he can explain, if one
can suspend disbelief, is the science behind using particular superpowers.
Kakalios calls this a “miracle exception.”
other words, he’s unable to prove how Superman can bound over tall buildings,
but he can tell you exactly how much force is needed, thanks to a few
scientific principles and basic equations.
how much force does Superman need to leap a tall building? This is where
Newton’s laws of physics get applied.
The third law says that every action has an equal reaction. If Superman
pushes on the ground hard enough, the ground will push him back, in this case
high enough to clear a tall building. Kakalios shows that for a building 660
feet high, the Man of Steel would have to push with 6,000 pounds of force. His
leap would reach speeds of 140 miles per hour.
explain Superman’s strength, the comic writers say that Krypton had a stronger
gravitational pull than our planet, about 15 times as strong as Earth. Kakalios
compares this to astronauts on the moon, who are seemingly weightless due to
the reduced gravity. The ratio between Superman’s home planet and the Earth is
even greater than the difference separating the Earth and the moon, giving him
incredible strength, by human standards.
this to be scientifically possible, Kakalios asserts that a neutron star must
have formed the core of Krypton. Neutron stars are incredibly dense and
unstable; this explains why Krypton exploded and Superman was sent to Earth.
ANOTHER CONUNDRUM OF COMICS that Kakalios demystified
with physics is how the Flash can stop a speeding bullet. Imagine that you are
driving on the freeway, and are driving at the exact same speed as the car next
to you. Besides inciting the ire of drivers boxed in behind you, this would
allow you to see the car without looking like it is moving fast. If you were
still, and a car passed at 60 miles per hour, the speed would be obvious, but
if both cars were moving at the same pace, neither would be moving from the
other. Once the Flash reaches the speed of the bullet, it’s easy to snatch it
because it appears motionless.
also explained the mystery behind what was responsible for the death of Gwen
Stacy, Spiderman’s girlfriend, as well as exploring the capabilities of
villains Electro and Magneto. These, as explained by Kakalios, are available to
view on his interactive website, physicsofsuperheroes.com.
not all comic books have their physics correct. Kakalios presents bloopers in
which the seemingly impossible actually is. He points to Cyclops of the X-Men,
who either violates Newton’s third law by beaming optical lasers without any
reaction of force, or “he has really strong neck muscles.” The Atom, a personal
favorite of Kakalios because the hero masquerades as a physics professor,
shrinks smaller than an oxygen particle, making breathing impossible. The hero,
before gaining his shrinking powers, lifts a piece of white dwarf star that,
according to Kakalios’ calculations, is 5,000 tons. In OU’s Mem Aud, Kakalios removed his glasses, puffed his
chest, and proclaimed, “We physics professors are just that strong!”
book writers have noticed Kakalios’ work. He said he has pointed out flaws in
the physics of the Green Goblin’s claims about gravity, only to see the errors corrected
in later issues. Kakalios takes pride in this. “It doesn’t matter if I’m
reaching this audience if I can get through to a super-villain,” he said. The
professor has also been contacted to consult for various comic books.
jest, Kakalios pointed out that most of his scientific work was ignored until
he began integrating comics into his work. A self-described “mild-mannered
physics professor,” Kakalios by day is a condensed matter experimentalist
alongside his teaching. But his work on “The Physics of Superheroes” has taken
him down a more interesting path. He is featured on a Trivial Pursuit question
about Krypton, and can be seen explaining physics on the extended commentary
for the 2009 movie “Watchmen.”
garb may exemplify his unusual niche in America’s hall of superheroes. He
presents his lectures in a blazer, dress shirt and smart slacks, typical of a
PhD dressing for business. But draped around his neck is a vibrant “Fantastic
4” tie, a reminder of how science and superheroes join forces in a battle
against the villainy of ignorance and disinterest.