Public Release:  Professor to describe 'uncanny physics of comic book superheroes'

University of Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS / ST. PAUL--Can you teach a physics class with only comic books to illustrate the principles? University of Minnesota physics professor James Kakalios has been doing it since 1995, when he explained the principle of conservation of momentum by calculating the force of Spider-Man's web when it snagged the superhero's girlfriend as she plummeted from a great height.

Kakalios will describe a freshman seminar class he teaches, "Physics of Comic Books," at 11 a.m. Sunday, Feb. 15, during the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle. His talk is part of the symposium "Pop Physics: The Interface Between Hard Science and Popular Culture," one of two symposia in the Science, Entertainment and the Media category.

"Comic books get their science right more often than one would expect," said the gregarious Kakalios. "I was able to find examples in superhero comic books of the correct descriptions of basic physical principles for a wide range of topics, including classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and even quantum physics."

Take, for example, the strength of Superman. To leap a 30-story building in a single bound, Superman's leg muscles must produce nearly 6,000 pounds of force while jumping, Kakalios calculates. The Man of Steel was that strong because he was designed to resist Krypton's powerful gravity. But for a planet with an Earth-like surface to have so much stronger gravity, it would need neutron star material in its core--a highly unstable situation. No wonder the planet exploded. Other topics considered in Kakalios' class include:

  • Is it possible to read minds as Prof. X of the X-Men does?
  • If Spider-Man's webbing is as strong as real spider silk, could it support his weight as he swings between buildings?
  • Can the mutant master of magnetism Magneto levitate people using the iron in their blood?
  • If you could run as fast as the Flash, could you run up the side of a building or across the ocean, and how often would you need to eat?

    "Once the physical concepts such as forces and motion, conservation of energy, electricity and magnetisms, and elementary quantum mechanics are introduced to answer these and other questions, their real-world applications to automobile airbags, cell phones, nanotechnology and black hole formation are explained," said Kakalios. "The students in this class ranged from engineering to history majors, and while not all were comic book fans, they all found it an engaging and entertaining way to learn critical thinking and basic physics concepts."

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    James Kakalios received a doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago in 1985 and has been teaching physics at Minnesota since 1988. His research field is experimental condensed matter physics. His recent research includes the study of amorphous/nanocrystalline silicon thin films for solar cell applications, studies of fluctuation phenomena in the brain (in collaboration with a neuroscience professor) and pattern formation in complex systems. Research by his laboratory on the dynamics of granular media can be viewed at the Sandland Web site: www.physics.umn.edu/groups/sand. Kakalios is also a member of Physics Force-The Next Generation, a group of physics professors and high school physics teachers who perform free science demonstrations to K-12 children. These shows present the fun side of physics through such demonstrations as the "tablecloth pull," "fire extinguisher rocket races," "crushing a 55-gallon steel barrel using air pressure," and "crushing a professor using air pressure." Information about the Physics Force is at www.physics.umn.edu/pforce.

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