Communicating Physics with the Community through Superheroes

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Sigma Pi Sigma Physics Congress (PhysCon)

November 3, 2016 to November 5, 2016

San Francisco, CA

Meeting host:

Sigma Pi Sigma


Geoffrey Miller

SPS Chapter:

Workshop Wizard and Zone 17 AZC Frank McKay helps attendees with a demonstration.

More often than not, physics is seen as an intimidating subject, something that only a genius would understand. The workshop “Communicating Science to the Public with Superheroes” disproves that false allegation. No one could have helped do that better than Dr. James Kakalios, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Kakalios began his teaching career in 1988, where he started a research program in condensed matter physics with an emphasis on complex or disorderly systems. He is also well known for his freshman seminar, “Everything I know about physics I learned by reading comic books;” a popular class which teaches physics using problems found only in comic books. He used this approach to show his students that physics can indeed be fun. This class led to his first book, “The Physics of Superheroes,” which quickly became world renowned; it has been translated into German, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, and Korean. He was also the science consultant—as part of the National Academy of Science’s Science and Entertainment Exchange program—for the 2009 movie ‘Watchmen’ as well as the 2012 movie ‘The Amazing Spider-Man.’ Dr. Kakalios has received several distinguished awards one of which is an Upper Midwest Regional EMMY in 2009 for his short video on the science of ‘Watchmen’, which was viewed over 1.8 million times on Youtube.

The students that were able to attend this workshop may have had a good idea of what they signed up for. However, no one knew how entertaining the event was going to be. Right from the start, Dr. Kakalios grasped the audience’s attention with humor. Some humorous questions he asked the audience dealt with what was missing from the scenario given in the comic books. For example, when you see a picture of Superman holding two skyscrapers in each hand you may not think twice about it. However, if you do start to think about that scene you may wonder how exactly he is doing it. Sure, he has super strength and can fly around, but what about the buildings? We know that pressure is found by dividing force by the area it is applied to, so the pressure that Superman is applying to those skyscrapers with only the area of his hands is astronomical, they would just fall apart as soon as he lifted them off the ground. Also where’s the plumbing to the buildings? Did he dismantle all the gas and electrical connections those buildings had to the ground? Dr. Kakalios said it would be very easy to find Superman, just look for the trailing of debris left behind by buildings and it’ll lead you straight to him.  

Speaker Dr. James Kakalios discusses the physics of superheroes and comics.

Dr. Kakalios brought up an example of a physics-in-comics problem that was once very famous. In 2000, Wizard magazine posed the long-standing question: “What killed Gwen Stacy in Spiderman #122?”

Dr. Kakalios dissected this problem step by step. The first thing he told us was the back story. Spiderman’s main rival, the Green Goblin, takes Gwen Stacy to the top of the George Washington Bridge in order to lure him into battle. During their fight Gwen is knocked off the top of the bridge and falls to her apparent doom. Spiderman then shoots his web in order to save her. Once the web reaches her and stops her fall, the picture shows a small ‘snap’ next to her neck. Spiderman then realizes to his horror that Gwen is in fact dead.

The Green Goblin then taunts Spiderman by saying, “You romantic idiot, she was dead before your webbing reached her. A fall from that height would kill anyone before they hit the ground.” If what the Green Goblin said is true, bungee jumpers and skydivers would be the ultimate thrill seekers, so we can obviously see that something is wrong with the Goblin’s theory.

So what did kill Gwen Stacy? In order to solve this problem, Dr. Kakalios led the group through what to take into account when looking at this problem from a real-life perspective, such as the height of the bridge and the velocity at which Gwen Stacy was falling when the webbing got to her. Using these facts along with some common sense and basic kinematic equations, Kakalios determined that she was caught 300 feet down, going a speed of 95 miles per hour. Then, calculating the change in momentum with those numbers, he calculated that the force exerted on Gwen Stacy from Spiderman’s webbing was around 1,100 pounds, or 10 Gs of force. Therefore, Gwen Stacy died from being caught in Spiderman’s webbing.

However, how does this relate to real-life problems? Why do we need physics? This is a prime example of why we have airbags. Without them, the stopping distance for our body in a car crash is drastically short. Airbags are designed to lengthen the deceleration time during an abrupt stop which might otherwise kill us. If they do their job properly, airbags will slow down our change in momentum by milliseconds or microseconds, which when plugged into basic kinematic formulas, reduces the force of the collision on our body by hundreds, if not thousands of pounds. Finding these real-life applications is Dr. Kakalios’s whole purpose in explaining physics through superheroes.

The workshop also had a hands-on portion where Dr. Kakalios showed some physics demos related to superpowers.

In one experiment, three different cups filled with three different clear liquids with different densities were placed on the tables. Looking at the cups you thought it was just a glass of water. Then the students were instructed to shine a laser in the cups, once done, they saw nothing spectacular happened to the laser beam. They were then instructed to stick their finger into the cup—that’s when they felt an object inside. Many of them jumped, shrieked, or were purely mesmerized by being fooled by their other senses, once they found out there was actually an object in there. However when the clear cubical objects were placed into the different cups you could clearly see a shift in light rays, revealing the presence of the foreign object. This workshop was a good hands-on way of describing and demonstrating some of the powers that superheroes have, whether it be manipulating magnetic and electrical fields, or bending light, the physics is there.

Author Geoffrey Miller, St. Mary's University - Texas“Superheroes are there just to represent the principles,” he said. “Once you have the principles you can then apply this knowledge to everyday life.” Dr. Kakalios knows that there are no superheroes climbing up walls or flying around in capes and spandex. His main goal is to spark the interest in a young students’ hearts and minds to get them to go and pursue a path to where they take interest in learning and the applying physics to the outside world.

What I took away from this presentation was that there are no limits when you understand something and have a passion to make the world a better place using your knowledge.