The Physics and Materials Science of Superheroes
October 2, 2017 - 6:00pm to 7:00pm
Clough Undergraduate Learning Commons
University of Minnesota
In 2001 James Kakalios created a Freshman Seminar class at the University of Minnesota entitled: "Everything I Know About Science I Learned from Reading Comic Books." This is a real physics class, that covers topics from Isaac Newton to the transistor, but there’s not an inclined plane or pulley in sight. Rather, ALL the examples come from superhero comic books, and as much as possible, those cases where the superheroes get their physics right!
While physicists, engineers and materials scientists don’t typically consult comic books when selecting research topics; innovations first introduced in superhero adventures as fiction can sometimes find their way off the comic book page and into reality. As amazing as the Fantastic Four’s powers is the fact that their costumes are undamaged when the Human Torch flames on or Mr. Fantastic stretches his elastic body. In shape memory materials, an external force or torque induces a structural change that is reversed upon warming, a feature appreciated by Mr. Fantastic. Spider-Man’s wall crawling ability has been ascribed to the same van der Waals attractive force that gecko lizards employ through the millions of microscopic hairs on their toes. Scientists have developed “gecko tape,” consisting of arrays of fibers that provide a strong enough attraction to support a modest weight (if this product ever becomes commercially available, I for one will never wait for the elevator again!). All this, and important topics such as: was it “the fall” or “the webbing” that killed Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man’s girlfriend in the classic Amazing Spider-Man # 121, how graphene saved Iron Man’s life and the chemical composition of Captain America’s shield, will be discussed. Superhero comic books often get their science right more often than one would expect!
James Kakalios is the Taylor Distinguished Professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Physics and Astronomy. He received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Chicago in 1985; he worked as a post-doctoral research associate at the Xerox – Palo Alto Research Center; and then in 1988, having had enough of those California winters, joined the faculty of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota. His research interests include nanocrystalline and amorphous semiconductors, pattern formation in sandpiles and fluctuation phenomena in neurological systems.
His popular science book THE PHYSICS OF SUPERHEROES was published in 2005 in the U.S. and the U.K., and has been translated into six languages. The SPECTACULAR SECOND EDITION was published in November 2009, followed by THE AMAZING STORY OF QUANTUM MECHANICS in 2010. His new book THE PHYSICS OF EVERYDAY THINGS: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day was published by Crown Books in May 2017.
In 2007, in response to a request from the National Academy of Sciences, he served as the science consultant for the Warner Bros. superhero film Watchmen. In 2009 Kakalios made a short video on the Science of Watchmen, which was viewed over 1.8 million times on youtube.com. This video won an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy award in the alternative Media: Arts/Entertainment category in 2009 and was nominated for a WEBBY award in 2010.
He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society (APS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and has served as the Chair of the APS Committee on Informing the Public, Past-Chair of the APS Forum on Outreach and Engaging the Public. His efforts at science communication and public outreach have been recognized with the 2014 AAAS Public Engagement with Science Award and the American Institute of Physics’ 2016 Andrew Gemant Award. He has been reading comic books longer than he has been studying physics.