December 15, 2005
Books: The Physics of Superheroes, by James Kakalios (Gotham Books,
Spider-Man, it appears, did indeed kill Gwen Stacy.
James Kakalios is a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota.
His teaching load includes the class “Everything I Need to Know About
Physics I Learned from Reading Comic Books,” a freshman seminar that I’m
sure does more to recruit students to the physics department than a
boatload of Newton biographies ever could. The class, like this book
developed from it, uses one miracle (a superhero is allowed his powers,
even if the existence of those powers seems to violate the laws of
physics) and then examines a superhero’s stunts and abilities based on
actual principles of gravity, motion and heat. He is able to determine
if the Flash could in fact run on water (yes) or if Superman would
really be able to pick up skyscrapers (no).
And, sadly, Kakalios does indeed prove that Spider-Man, due to the
abruptness with which his web stops girlfriend Gwen Stacy’s fall off a
bridge, did cause her death.
Lively and exciting (and how often do you hear that applied to what is
essentially a text on introductory physics?), The Physics of Superheroes
makes rather advanced scientific discussions accessible, in part because
who doesn’t want to read about Aquaman or the differences between the
abilities of early Superman and later Superman? By back-engineering
their powers (early Superman’s strength was due to the differences in
gravity between Krypton and Earth), Kakalios shows us what these
superheroes can really do and what physics won’t allow even an
extraordinary being to achieve.