Hippo Manchester
December 15, 2005


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Books: The Physics of Superheroes, by James Kakalios (Gotham Books, 2005)

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.

— Amy Diaz