U professor melds comic books and quantum physics to teach real-world science principles
Mild-mannered Ph.D. James Kakalios was your normal, everyday physics professor, happily puttering about with normal, everyday physics investigations concerning things like amorphous semiconductors, segregation phenomena in granular media, and fluctuation phenomena in neurological systems.
Or at least he was, until One Fateful Day when a lab accident gone awry transformed him into an adored superhero of untold magnitude: Captain Reachesboredfreshmen! (Insert suitable triumphant fanfare music here)
Okay, not really.
There was never any "puttering about," no fateful lab accidents have occurred, and the good professor does not go cavorting about in tights, a mask, and a cape saving hapless individuals from boring academic treatises. (The bit about the amorphous semiconductors is true, though. Kakalios' research focuses on experimental condensed matter physics.)
But he COULD very well be called Captain Reachesboredfreshmen. Captain Reachesbored lots of people, in fact. A McKnight Professor and the author of The Physics of Superheroes (along with its Spectacular Second Edition) and The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics, Kakalios is a sought-after instructor, speaker, and consultant. Using examples culled from comics and other pop culture icons to illustrate everything from the atomic bomb and supercomputers to the surface tension of water and Newton's Laws, he teaches the U's popular freshman seminar Everything I Know About Physics I Learned By Reading Comic Books.
He also is a frequent University of Minnesota LearningLife speaker--including for this summer's Century of Ideas series. Kakalios will bring his super powers of exposition-by-way-of-entertainment to bear in the July 19 morning seminar The Atomic Age: Physics of the Atom Bomb and Radioactivity.
And while his unique teaching style didn't come from a radioactive spider bite or some other freak lab accident, its roots are similarly serendipitous. "I was teaching an introductory physics class and trying to come up with an exam question that hadn't been done a hundred times before. It occurred to me that the death of Spider-Man's girlfriend Gwen Stacy (which, as we all know, occurs in Amazing Spider-Man # 121 in 1973), could serve as the perfect example."
Kakalios explains (for those who are not QUITE as well-versed in comic lore), "In short, she's knocked off the George Washington Bridge during a battle between Spider-Man and his nemesis, the Green Goblin. Spider-Man attempts to save her by shooting his webbing down to catch her and stop her. Tragically, when he brings her up, he discovers to his horror that she is already dead.
"Gwen's death is remarkable for two reasons...one, she stays dead. No one in comics stays dead. But poor Gwen Stacy, almost forty years later, and she has the dubious distinction of remaining dead. Two, there was a long-standing debate of sorts in the comic community about the actual cause of her death--whether it was the trauma and shock of falling, or whether Spidey himself killed her when his web brought her to a sudden halt."
Using physics, one could show that the force from the net would indeed prove fatal to the webbed superhero's girlfriend. It was an excellent example of momentum--and made for a test question that students enjoyed.
Out of that one question grew the freshman seminar Everything I Know About Physics... "I had been a big fan of comics as a kid, but then gave them up when I discovered girls in high school (oddly enough, a discovery I NEVER get credit for in the scientific community). Then, I rediscovered them (comics) when I was in graduate school as a break from studying. I had gotten a lot of good feedback on the Gwen Stacy problem, and began to incorporate more examples from comics and things like Star Wars and Star Trek.
"When it came to designing the freshman seminar in 2001, I decided, as an exercise, to see if I could mine my 'geek background' and try and focus an entire course on Gwen-Stacy-like material. In other words, a physics course without an incline plane or pulley in sight; one where we use comic books (that by and large get their science right) as illustrations."
The next year, on the heels of the release of the new summer blockbuster Spider-Man, Kakalios decided to "get physics some press" in the newspaper by writing an op ed piece for the Star Tribune on the death of Gwen Stacy. That column, along with a press release from U Relations touting "the science behind the superheroes," opened the media floodgates.
"Now, the U had done press releases on my work before about my work on electrical noise, disordered semiconductors... and the results? Zeee-ro," he says drolly. "But you write one little story about Spider-Man, however... and the next thing I knew, the AP was in my office, and CNN and the BBC picked it up and it was something like the fourth-most e-mailed story on Yahoo news, and...well, it got a lot of attention."
But, like most mild-mannered superhero alter egos, it wasn't necessarily all the publicity that was the most rewarding for Kakalios--it was the chance to reach out to people. "What was really gratifying was the hundreds and hundreds of letters and correspondence from students, teachers, and even people long out of school, about the value of using something like this to teach 'real-world' physics principles."
The letter-writers also asked him if he had a book available, and those queries became the impetus for The Physics of Superheroes (Gotham Books, 2005; 2nd ed. 2009) and his newest book The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics (Gotham Books, 2010).
And not long after the literary agents came calling, so, too, did Hollywood. In 2007, Kakalios got a call from a representative from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Science and Entertainment Exchange Program--a group that connects entertainment industry professionals with top scientists and engineers to create a synergy between accurate science and engaging storylines in film and TV.
"She asked me if I'd be interested in doing some science consulting for a new superhero movie, and I said 'Sure...what's it about?' And then she asked me if I'd ever heard of a comic called Watchmen. Had I ever heard of it? For a comic fan...this is like the equivalent of asking a film buff if he's ever heard of some movie called Citizen Kane."
Kakalios jumped (or is it leapt in a single bound?) at the chance to work on a project involving what he calls "the Citizen Kane of the graphic novel world." His role as a consultant was not so much to ensure the film was scientifically accurate 100 percent of the time, but rather to see that it had a feeling of plausibility and remained accurate to the book.
"The end goal was staying faithful to this immensely popular book. I mean, if there's a scene from the book going into the movie that isn't technically accurate, and I say we have to change it...well, it comes down to a matter of 'we either change it and offend millions of rabid fans...or we leave it and offend one physics professor in Minnesota.' I know what choice I would make--and I'm the physics professor from Minnesota!"
He continues, "They wanted to know IF superpowers could exist, then how the powers of Dr. Manhattan would work. It's never detailed in the book, but as the producers explained to me, there are thousands of details and decisions that go into the movie. The goal is to make them as plausible to the audience as possible, to make the environment as 'real' as possible. They said to think of it this way: if we see a hallway in the background, we want to know what is down that hallway and around the corner--even if the audience never goes down it.
"You never want the audience to think 'well, THAT doesn't look like a real physics lab.' Because the moment they do that, they aren't paying attention to the movie--it draws them out of the experience."
Following his work on Watchmen, Kakalios also consulted on 2011's Green Lantern and then, bringing him full circle back to the franchise that began his comics/physics mind-meld, on this summer's The Amazing Spider-Man.
So, after a decade of coming up with test questions from comics and lectures based on Amazing Stories and after proffering his opinion on several blockbusters...is he "that guy" at the movies? You know the one--the one for whom the phrase "methinks (he) doth protest too much" was really written.
"No...definitely not," he says with a laugh. "I don't go to the movies with my pad of paper and a pencil, and watch and say 'Oooh! My physics-sense is tingling!' every time there's an inaccuracy. I'm not Dr. No or Professor Grump. Movies and comics are asking the audience to accept something that is inherently ridiculous. You have to allow for that 'miracle exemption;' you have to suspend disbelief to a degree.
"It's more that when I see them get the science right, it's like catching an inside joke. I'm more pleased that when it goes right than chagrined when it's wrong (unless, of course, like I said, it's so erroneous that it takes the audience out of the film). And who knows? If science is being used right, maybe the audience of an 'escapist film' will learn something while they're being entertained."
The idea of learning something while being entertained is one that Kakalios is fond of, and will happily use his "sneaky ninja-like skills to teach people." As he pointed out in his 2009 convocation address to incoming U freshmen, the key to success is being both a "geek and a nerd." Meaning, a "geek is someone with passion about something--whether it's comics or NASCAR, Renaissance art or hip hop," and a nerd as someone who "gets turned on by ideas" and is engaged in lifelong learning about the world around them.
He continues, "Over the course of my teaching and lecturing and speaking...I've talked to audiences that range from middle school kids to local libraries; from the Library of Congress to ComicCon in San Diego. And I've come to the conclusion that people aren't anti-intellectual...But they are anti-snobbery. They don't like to be talked down to, or to feel dumb or persecuted for liking whatever speaks to them and sparks their interest. I've discovered that people have a genuine interest in learning about this material [science, in particular], but coupled with it, there can be an insecurity that people who are not scientists have about their ability to understand it."
"If I do a poor job explaining my research in amorphous semiconductors to one of my colleagues down the hall, they'll interrupt me, ask questions, all that, because as a scientist (even if it's a different area of study) they have confidence in their ability to get the material.
"But if I do a poor job explaining it to a freshman seminar student or my next door neighbor...many times he won't interrupt or ask questions, because he doesn't want to be perceived as 'not smart enough.' Even though it's on me to do a better job explaining it. But if I tell the same story using Spider-Man or Superman, people don't get their shields up. And if you tie it to a narrative, like the death of Gwen Stacy, and say...and this is why we have air bags in automobiles, because objects in motion tend to stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force...then they tend to remember it better.
"The standard lament you hear in teaching students about physics," he says, "is 'Why do I need this? When am I going to use this in real life?'
"Interestingly enough," he continues with a smile, "whenever I use superheroes to explain physics principles...students never complain about when they'd use it in real life.
"Apparently, they all have plans after graduation involving spandex and patrolling the city keeping it safe from all the mad scientist villains out there."
Or, maybe... they just had an encounter with a sneaky-ninja-teaching-skills-wielding superpowered good guy, who managed to impart a little wisdom while still having fun.
Want to see Professor Kakalios's superpowers in action? Register for his Century of Ideas seminar: The Atomic Age, where he will use comic books and science fiction films to explain the physics of the atomic bomb and the nature of radioactivity.
Watch the Emmy-award-winning video "The Science of Watchmen"
Uncover the very cool "sneaky ninja-like" physics lesson hidden in the "Death of Gwen Stacy"