Friday, February 24, 2006

The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios

Guide Rating -4/5

Teaching physics to undergraduates, James Kakalios encountered a problem almost every physics teacher has run afoul of: “When will this ever relate to my life?” students ask, referring to the typical pulley, rolling ball or inclined plane example. These examples have been the staples of physics education dating back to the oldest texts I have found – but, admittedly they are a little dry, especially if you are not a physics major.

"This Looks Like a Job for Comic-Book-Reading-Physicist!"

Fortunately for students at the University of Minnesota, mild mannered professor Kakalios has a secret identity – Comic book reading physicist! Well, it’s not that secret anymore, nor is it that unusual: I am not the only physics student at Harvard who waits for the new comics to arrive every Wednesday at my local comic store. However, there is a truly amazing aspect of James’ other identity – he realized that while students will complain about the relevance of the old saws to their lives, they will happily listen and calculate for hours the gravitational force on Krypton, based on Superman’s ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Kakalios has turned his “Everything I Know About Science I Learned From Reading Comic Books” freshman seminar into a book “The Physics of Superheroes” (published, appropriately, by Gotham Books) that covers much of the typical “College Physics” course with only a minimum of mathematics and examples pulled entirely from Superhero comic books. Kakalios surveys a wide range of physics at a level that is appropriate for any interested reader – a feat that stretches the talents of many popular physics books.

No equations more difficult than simple arithmetic!

Kakalios’ examples come from a number of comics, from both Marvel and DC, including Superman, the Flash and Spiderman. Standing out among Kakalios’ favorites is The Atom and Henry Pym/Ant Man/Giant/Yellow Jacket (his codename changes often) – two wonderful choices: characters who are both heroes and physicists. Kakalios also spices up the education with a short history of the comics industry and details of the histories of the characters he draws upon. In his introduction, Kakalios explains basic algebra as a simple extension of arithmetic, and promises not to go beyond that level of difficulty. In the only 19 equations he prints, he almost keeps to his promise – including the Schrödinger equation introduces some calculus, but he never uses the calculus, so there need by no fear of the partial differentials involved the central equation of quantum mechanics

"It's a physics text-book that will be interesting! No, but it is a good book!"

While he never claims to have written a physics text – much as I would love to be able to teach a course based upon a text full of comic book references - in his quest to keep the level of book accessible and to avoid any principles he cannot explain with comic book references, Kakalios neglects a number of central principles of the college physics course and skimps on the details a real text would have. However, he does cover a number of interesting topics that are neglected in courses like this. Standing out amongst these is the modern physics section, with chapters on Atomic Physics (explained in reference to Dr Doom and the Fantastic Four’s journeys to microscopic worlds within atoms), Quantum Mechanics (What The Atom should see when he shrinks to the size of an electron and the “Many Worlds” idea meets the “Crisis on Infinite Earths”), Tunneling (Kitty Pryde passing through walls) and solid state physics (Iron Man’s transistor powered super armor).

Attack of the imperial forces (and imperial lengths and imperial units of energy)!

A shortcoming of Kakalios’s work is his insistence on using imperial units in his calculations – despite constant references to kilograms and meters as he sets up basic mechanics, he switches to feet and pounds when he starts talking about actual weights and lengths. This is probably a change made purely to please the average American reader. I cannot imagine that his university level course could use non-metric units, and I found their intrusion into the books is very distracting. This book has many good qualities – the explanations are generally clear and the examples are imaginative. I look forward to the chance I can base a tutorial session on calculating the strength of Spiderman’s webbing or the number of cheeseburgers the Flash needs to consume to fuel his high speed running. For a trained physicist and comics fan, the book is a quick read, but very entertaining.

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