Read This: The Physics of Superheroes


Gwen Stacy was killed by Spider-Man’s bad science.

FROM JASON’S TENUOUS GRASP ON PHYSICS — I loved the idea of science when I was in elementary school. The field opened up worlds of amazing discovery and speculation. What I was never so great at was rigor and math.

So when I took a gamble two years ago and picked up James Kakalios’ The Physics of Superheroes, I was impressed at how easy he made very difficult-to-grasp concepts. It was like he wrapped carrots in dark chocolate and got me to eat my veggies.

Conservation of momentum? Caloric conversion to kinetic energy? Thermodynamics? Quantum mechanics? Suddenly, understanding it all was as easy as Superman lifting a Ford.

The author is a comic book geek-turned-scientist who first connected the two worlds in his mind while reading Action Comics #333. In his foreword to the book, Kakalios writes that he “noted that the writers and artists creating superhero comic-book stories get their science right more times than you might expect.”

I suppose you could look at The Physics of Superheroes as a textbook of sorts — Kakalios uses the concepts teaching college physics classes. But I prefer to see it as due diligence to a lot of comics I really liked growing up. What kind of muscle would it take for Superman to leap a tall building? How strong would Spider-Man’s webbing have to be to support him? How much would The Flash have to eat every day to keep up with his metabolism? If Magneto walks, does he generate electricity? If The Atom shrinks to subatomic size, how does he breathe?

And it’s all laced with a sense of humor that’s pretty infectious, and not too well hidden in these great clips uploaded to YouTube:

Look, after reading this book I’m still no physics genius. I’ll be totally honest: I skipped a few math-heavy pages with lots of numbers and symbols, and looked for just the author’s prosaic explanations. But now the theory I remember studying in college is put in a context that’s memorable and much more easily indexed for future use.

Get out there. Buy it. Borrow it. Read it. Trust me.

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