James Kakalios Explores the Science of Superheroes at the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Last night physics professor, Hollywood consultant and self-confessed comics nerd, James Kakalios captivated a packed Book Festival audience as he attempted to teach them the real science of Superheroes.

Mild mannered physicist Kakalios was launched into the limelight when he wrote a paper on the science of Spiderman to coincide with the release of Sam Raimi’s 2002 superhero movie. The piece was published on a Friday and by the Monday morning the professor was fielding calls from the BBC, The New York Times and CNN. This media coverage resulted in hundreds of e-mails from students and teachers delighted with the concept of using superheroes to teach physics and enquiring about a book based on the class. What followed were two books, The Physics of Superheroes and The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics, that explain the principles of physics in a fun, easy-to-understand and often hilarious manner.

 ‘You’re not a scientist until you get a pipe’ began Kakalios, a lesson learned from the comics of his childhood, as he pulled one from his jacket pocket and posed for his Book Festival audience. He commented that these comic books often featured fearless superhero scientists who succeeded in saving the world by employing more brain than brawn. The discovery of girls in high school, a discovery he feels he is not given enough credit or in scientific literature, resulted in Kakalios giving up on comics for several years, but whilst at college his interest was reignited.

‘Everything I needed to know about physics I learned from reading comic books’ claimed Kakalios. ‘Superheroes in comics get their science right more than you might think. You just need to suspend your disbelief.’ He illustrated this with examples of The Flash demonstrating Newton’s Third Law of Motion and Superman correctly describing electrical currents.

However the science of comics can’t always be trusted. In an issue of Spiderman, lightning bolts are deflected with an airborne steel chair. ‘Everyone knows electricity is attracted to metal’ claims Spidey. Kakalios retorted ‘This tactic would work if the chair were GROUNDED. Electricity isn’t attracted to metal if it has nowhere to go!’ And as for accuracy of comic books’ scientific predictions ‘Comic Books were always envisaging what the future might be like. They promised we’d all be travelling to work with jetpacks… what we got was laptops and cell phones’.

Towards the end of the event the professor announced ‘now I’m going to teach you all quantum physics’ and checking his watch added ‘and I’ve got 10 minutes to do it!’ What followed was a witty and enlightening lesson that had a captivated audience in fits of laughter. He described the invention and evolution of lasers and noted that in the same year Schrödinger was published, 1926, the first pulp science fiction magazine was launched, ‘One led to lasers, the other to death rays.’

Appropriately James Kakalios ended his presentation with some advice borrowed from the pages of a Spiderman comic ‘with physics comes great power and great responsibility’.

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