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Superhero comics offer super physics lessons

Image © / DC Comics, used by permission

The public persona of the Atom is mild-mannered physics professor Ray Palmer, who fashioned a lens that enabled him to shrink any object to any degree he wished. The lens's secret ingredient is a chunk of a white dwarf star, and a 1960s version of the Atom comic book shows the professor in a grassy field, huffing and puffing as he carries a grapefruit-sized piece of the star (which has miraculously fallen to Earth) to his car.

Palmer seems undaunted by the fact that a sphere of white dwarf star that size would weigh 500,000 tons.

Jim Kakalios, a real-life physics professor from the University of Minnesota who spoke April 5 on "The Uncanny Physics of Superhero Comic Books" as part of the MIT Physics Colloquium Series, said that although a plethora of scientific bloopers could be found on the pages of comic books, Palmer carrying the star was completely believable. "We physics professors are just that strong," he wisecracked.

Kakalios's receptive audience couldn't get enough of his brand of one-liners: Supervillain Electro's pointy yellow lightning bolt mask would not be Kakalios's choice of attire if he was transformed into a living electrical capacitor; each superhero has a "one-time exemption from the laws of nature" for his or her powers; and when Superman says he got permission to carry two skyscrapers over his shoulders the way a waiter might carry trays, Kakalios exclaimed, "Who would you ask?"

Kakalios, who studies disordered systems as a condensed matter experimentalist in his day job, achieved fame if not fortune in May 2002, when "Spider-Man" opened in theaters. Kakalios, who uses examples from comic books to keep his students engaged, thought it might be nice to get "a little physics into the newspaper." The University of Minnesota put out a news release. The next thing Kakalios knew, a picture of him holding plastic action figures was zooming around the world faster than a speeding bullet.

Kakalios finds that students in his introductory physics classes are much more willing to learn about Newton's laws when they are calculating the force needed to leap over tall buildings in a single bound (Superman would need 140 mph of liftoff velocity and his legs would have to exert 6,000 pounds of force, in case you were wondering). From how air bags save lives to how cell phones work, Kakalios covers serious physics with the "silly premises" found in comic books. Comic books "actually get their science right more often than you think," said Kakalios, who wrote a book, "The Physics of Superheroes," in 2005.

In one comic book, an evil character proposes finding the location of the Bat Cave by burying sticks of dynamite and detecting the differences in the resulting sound waves. It's true that the waves would travel at different speeds depending on the material they encountered. Superman, carrying a terrified bad guy over electrical wires, says correctly that electrocution shouldn't be a problem unless they are grounded by the wooden pole. It would be difficult, but you could potentially make a locomotive into a giant electromagnet. A superhero capable of traveling at super speed catching a bullet in his hand is a "beautiful illustration of relativity," according to Kakalios.

Just the idea of learning math and science from a comic book is disarming enough to make even the most math-phobic willing to give it a try. And while not all Kakalios's students will become physicists, he pointed out that as future voters, they should have the background to make better decisions about funding for science and technology.

When the Green Goblin kidnapped Spiderman's girlfriend, Gwen Stacey, and pushed her from the George Washington Bridge to her death, the debate raged in comic book circles for years: Was it the fall that killed her or Spidey's attempt to save her by catching her in webbing mid-fall, causing her neck to snap?

If Gwen has a mass of 50 kilograms, falls 300 feet and acquires a velocity of 95 mph, there would be 10g of force on her body, which she could potentially survive. But stopping short against all that force in half a second would certainly break her neck, as the Green Goblin declared in a later issue after Kakalios was widely quoted making the same calculation. "If I can teach a homicidal maniac like the Green Goblin about forces and motion, I'm making a difference," he said.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 11, 2007 (download PDF).

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