He studies superhero physics

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James Kakalios teaches in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota. His class, "Everything I Needed to Know About Physics I Learned From Reading Comic Books," is a popular freshman seminar.

Dr. Kakalios recently published a book titled The Physics of Superheroes.

“As a kid, comic books helped fuel my curiosity.”

Examining superpowers

Dr. Kakalios uses comic book superheroes to make science more accessible to students. In his class, students examine superpowers-such as invisibility, super speed, and shape-shifting-and use science to answer questions about them. Dr. Kakalios' students give each superhero an exemption-superpowers don't exist, but if they did, what would the implications be?

Spiderman with web
Real spider silk is one of the strongest materials in nature. If Spider Man's webbing had the same tensile strength-or ability to withstand tension-as an actual spider's it could easily support his weight, and probably much more. A real spider's dragline silk has a tensile strength, pound for pound, five times greater than steel cable, and is more elastic than nylon. Clothing made from artificial spider silk would be lightweight yet stronger than Kevlar®!

According to Dr. Kakalios, "The most important thing is getting the students to ask the right kinds of questions. If a character has wings on her back, what important physical forces and issues do we need to consider is she's going to use them to fly? What kind of wingspan and muscle structure would that require? Hopefully, pointing out issues like these will help students think critically in other situations."

Superheroes as role models?

Dr. Kakalios enjoys reading the exploits of the Fantastic Four, especially the Dr. Reed Richards character. Dr. Richards uses his intelligence to solve problems and defeat the bad guys as often as he uses his powers.

"Reed Richards had powers that allowed him to stretch and assume different shapes, but he often used his intellect [to defeat the villain]. He was the smartest man in the Marvel Comics Universe, and he showed that being intelligent could be cool and useful."

Other superheroes, such as Batman, have no superpowers at all but rather depend on hard work and reason to fight evil-doers.