Book Review : The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios
I have a confession to make. I am now 53 years old and I never gave up reading comics (or graphic novels, if you will). That is a drive I have come to understand as they present a world where good always triumphs over evil, which is markedly different from the real world. Reading comics in the Silver Age (late fifties to mid seventies, for non comic readers) was what sparked a life long love of science and especially Physics. Which caused me to get both a B.S and M.S. in Physics in the mid seventies. The Physics Of Superheroes by James Kakalios pretty much combines the two things that I love into one book. This book is the second edition, which has been expanded and somewhat revised from the first edition published back in 2005. Professor Kakalios wrote both books as an extension of a course he teaches at the University of Minnesota entitled “Everything I Needed to Know About Physics I Learned From Reading Comic Books”. Which basically is a beginning Physics course using comic books and comic book characters to explain the principles covered in most Physics 101 courses.
Professor Kakalios writes with wit, and clarity, and obviously loves the comic books and heroes of his youth. While there are formulas involved and they are complex, he always explains them thoroughly and concisely. And anyone who can understand 1/2 + 1/2 = 1 can understand any of these formulas. So there’s no need to fear them. He mainly focuses on the Silver Age, which for non comic readers is from the appearance of the Silver Age Flash in Showcase #4, which basically ignited the Silver Age renaissance. To the tragic death of Gwen Stacy, Spider Man’s fiancee at the time. Back in those days both Marvel and DC had a much more decided scientific bent. On DC’s side it was due to long time Editor Julius Schwartz’s prior history as an agent for many well know and legendary Sci Fi writers. The books back then were filled with science references that the plots frequently turned upon. And little tidbits of science facts. I think a lot of us were educated in science by them, and they at least in my situation caused me to study science in college.
Anyway, the book uses such things as Superman leaping over tall buildings as a mechanism to explain force and gravity. The Flash to demonstrate many principles such as the necessity of friction and it’s relationship to traction as being vital for us to be able to walk. To how Flash vibrates through walls, and how Kitty Pride of the X men can walk through walls. To using Iron Man to explain the principles of solid state electronics. To using physics to explain how Krypton exploded, and why it’s higher gravity would explain Superman’s superstrength and invulnerability, and also questions the explanation of him getting his powers from Earth’s yellow sun.
The Second Edition is proof that sometimes, in rare situations you actually can improve on as good of a thing as the first edition.
The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios is Highly Recommended and is a favorite of mine that I reread several times a year.