Super science

How much energy would the Flash need to run as fast as he does? What would Wonder Woman’s bracelets need to be made of to deflect bullets? How did Krypton’s gravity help make Superman’s earthly powers possible?

James Kakalios, the Taylor Distinguished Professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the U’s College of Science and Engineering, has answers to these unusual ques­tions—and many more—whether he’s teaching students or acting as a sci­ence consultant for Hollywood movies.

An avid comic book reader, Kakalios has long been passionate about making physics more widely understandable—and maybe even fun. So while his research primarily encompasses solid-state physics (examining, among other things, connections between nanoscience and neuroscience), he is widely known for using real-life science to make sense of what goes on in the worlds of sci-fi and comic books.

Launched in 2001, his popular freshman seminar, Everything I Know About Science I Learned from Reading Comic Books, garnered nationwide media attention. Four years later, Gotham Books published Kakalios’ first book, The Physics of Superheroes. Now in its second edi­tion, the book explains the plausibility of superheroes’ powers in scientific yet accessible ways.

Kakalios estimates he’s given at least 70 talks in the last five years, everywhere from local high schools to Comic-Con International in San Diego. Invariably, topics that apply to people’s lives in some way are the most popular. So he often talks about things like why superheroes costumes don’t disintegrate when they use their powers.

“My approach is to say that super­powers are not physically accurate, but let’s grant a one-time miracle exemption from the laws of nature and see if a character’s powers are consistent with physics,” Kakalios explains. “I don’t dumb things down. I just strip out nonessential jargon and I see people getting really excited about ideas, whether they’re fictional or not.”

Recently, Kakalios consulted on the movie The Amazing Spider-Man, weighing in on science-related issues such as the hero’s wall-crawling abil­ity. Before that, he consulted on the Warner Bros. film Watchmen, which he followed up with a YouTube video (see below) discussing how the main character’s superpowers can be explained by quantum mechanics. Viewed over 1.8 million times, the video won a regional Emmy award and was nomi­nated for a Webby.

Kakalios’ latest book, The Amaz­ing Story of Quantum Mechanics: A Math-Free Exploration of the Science That Made Our World (Gotham Books, 2010), once again uses pop culture to explore the quantum phys­ics principles behind things like hard drives, lasers, and magnetic reso­nance imaging.

“I want to share the pleasure of scientific thinking,” Kakalios says. “The world is a knowable place if you can apply a few simple principles that account for a wealth of complex phe­nomena.”