Sure, we all wish we had superpowers at one time or another, but do we have any clue how to make those superpowers work in the real world? Well have no fear, physicist James Kakalios is here! The University of Minnesota professor, author of The Physics of Superheroes, and Exchange consultant has consulted on not one but three superhero films, including Watchmen, Green Lantern, and a project he can’t tell you about just yet. But what he can tell you is in the interview below. Read and be amazed as this amusing professor tells us his two most profound moments as a science consultant, why comic books are great for teaching physics and what superpower he wishes he possessed.
Tell us about your background. Why did you choose to study and teach physics?
I grew up in Queens, New York – in the same part of town that the TV show All In the Family was set. Even as a kid I was interested in science, due in part to comic books! The superhero comics of the 1960’s (know by fans as “The Silver Age”) would often feature scientist superheroes. In fact, comics from the Silver Age were great recruiting pamphlets for a STEM-based career. After all, they put a high premium on knowing the laws of physics and nature (the chemical composition of aqua regia, the only acid solution to dissolve gold, or the escape velocity to leave Earth’s gravitational field, were plot points in comics from this period). They emphasized creative problem solving (how does one escape from the “Death Trap” du jour?), and they provided essential fashion tips!
I gave up comics in high school upon discovering girls (a discovery for which I have not received sufficient credit from the scientific establishment) but then fell back into the hobby in graduate school, as a welcome distraction while working on my dissertation. A chance comment from a math teacher had inspired me in high school to consider patent law as a career. As I investigated the courses I would need in college, the engineering classes struck me as much more interesting than the pre-law courses, and I wound up majoring in engineering. Working part-time in a physics lab led to changing my major to physics and it has been physics ever since. I am very fortunate to be able to study, research and teach physics for a living.
Your class “Everything I Need to Know About Physics I Learned from Reading Comic Books” takes an unusual approach to physics. Where did the idea to use comic books to teach physics come from? How did this evolve into your amazing book The Physics of Superheroes?
Back in the mid-1990’s, I was teaching a standard Introductory Physics class, and was trying to compose an exam problem involving Impulse and Momentum that had not been done a hundred times before. It occurred to me that the circumstances surrounding the death of Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man’s girlfriend, from 1973’s Amazing Spider-Man # 121, could serve as a perfect exam problem. In brief, Gwen falls from the top of a tall bridge, and her fall is arrested at the last minute by Spider-Man’s webbing. However, despite the save, Gwen died, a death that has not been reversed in the intervening years (in comics, all dead characters eventually get better). Analysis from a physics perspective shows that the acceleration experienced by Gwen from the webbing would indeed be fatal. The students enjoyed applying their physics knowledge to a “real world” example, so I compiled a list of similar illustrations.
Back in 2001 I created an entire physics class that covered everything from Isaac Newton to the transistor, but without an inclined plane or pulley in sight. Rather ALL the examples came from comic books, and as much as possible, those cases where the superheroes get their science right. In 2002, when the first Spider-Man film was about to open, I thought that this might be a good chance to get some physics into the newspaper. I wrote up an op-ed about the death of Gwen Stacy, which was published in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The resulting media attention led to hundreds of e-mails from students, teachers and those long out of school, who liked this idea of using superhero comic books to teach real physics, and asked if I had a book, which eventually led to my writing one.
Your experience as a consultant for The Exchange started with a call about Watchmen. Had you ever considered consulting for TV or film before that?
I had not considered science consulting in any serious way, though sometimes when watching cheesy action movies I would have to restrain myself from talking back to the screen. In 2007 I had been invited to speak on Superhero Physics at a national meeting of librarians, where I met someone from the National Academy of Sciences. She passed my name to Ann Merchant, who was setting up the program that would become The Exchange. She called and said she had received a request from Warner Bros. for a science consultant for a superhero movie, and would I be interested? I said yes, and asked what was the movie? “Have you ever heard of Watchmen?” she asked. While not well known to those outside comics, to fans, this was akin to asking “Have you heard of Citizen Kane?” I quickly agreed to help, and conference calls, set visits and phone consults with Billy Crudup soon followed.
What has been the most profound moment you’ve experienced as a science consultant?
Two come to mind: Discussing science with Billy Crudup, the actor who played physicist Jon Osterman who becomes the super-powered Dr. Manhattan. Mr. Crudup knows quite a bit of science, and it was fun discussing aspects of my job with him.
The second highlight came a year later. Warner Bros. asked me to attend the Comic-Con International in San Diego in July 2008, as part of their promotion of next year’s release of Watchmen. I gave a talk on “The Science of Watchmen” to a capacity room of comic book fans, describing the basic principles of quantum mechanics as they related to Dr. Manhattan. Quantum Mechanics seems so weird as it requires the acceptance of strange, impossible ideas, such as light being a particle and matter behaving like a wave. But a room full of comic book fans is the PERFECT audience to accept strange, impossible ideas!
You’ve been a great cheerleader for science consulting. What have you learned from being a science consultant? How can other scientists be persuaded to become science consultants?
The consulting work I’ve done has been a lot of fun, and has almost been a sort of ‘busman’s holiday.’ Consulting for a Hollywood film is not that different from doing scientific research. In both cases you are trying to solve a problem by invoking and applying the laws of nature. Of course, with a superhero movie, some of these laws will be broken or at least bent at large angles! But you have a challenge—to account for the impossible deeds called for in the script, and to determine how to do so with the least damage to the laws of physics and biology. In the film for which I’m currently doing some consulting work, I met with the production designer and director before the script was finalized, and we brainstormed about the hero’s and villain’s powers and how they could and could not work in the real world. How much will show up in the finished product, I don’t know. Doing research in science involves creativity, and the folks in Hollywood are certainly creative. They are also very nice people – I must say that I feel lied to by all the stereotypical descriptions of Hollywood egomaniacs and divas. At least the creators who contact The Exchange do not fit this caricature.
Should influencing young people to want to become scientists be a goal of science consulting?
I don’t think that should be the goal. The filmmakers have a responsibility to make an entertaining film. If using science correctly can help achieve that goal, then they are all for it. Any moment when an audience is thinking: that’s not physically right or that’s not what a real lab is like, is a moment that they are not paying attention to the story. So the filmmakers try to get the science right just enough to tell an engaging story, but not so accurate that it brings the narrative to a halt. But anytime an “escapist film” involves smart characters using their knowledge to solve problems and get out of jams – this sends the message that it is good and desirable to be smart. The first Iron Man film is a great example of this – at every point when he is in trouble, Tony Stark out-thinks his opponents. A suit of high tech armor is fine, but first you need to know how to build one in a cave from a bunch of scraps!
We know you’re a big fan of comic books. If you were a superhero, what powers would you possess? Would you have an arch-nemesis?
An easy question. Whenever I have to deal with a delayed flight, rush hour traffic, writing lectures or grant proposal deadlines, I wish I had Super-Speed. Of course, I’d also need the ability to withstand super-accelerations, ignore super-air resistance, discharge any super-contact electrification and other complications from running faster than the speed of sound. My arch-nemesis would be the same one I battle with now: Dr. Too Much To Do in Not Enough Time!
Your Science of Watchmen video on YouTube has more than 1.7 million views. What do you think accounts for its popularity and critical acclaim?
The University of Minnesota asked me to make a brief video about the “Science of Watchmen” for their YouTube page. We threw something together, and Warner Bros. very graciously sent us some clips from the film, which had not yet been released. There was a great deal of interest in the film from comic book fans, and the chance to see any footage not already in the trailers was a great draw. The clip was posted and promoted on a variety of science-based blogs, as well as popular entertainment sites – all due to the interest in the film. Viewers who came for the Watchmen stayed for the science. The clip became so popular that Warner Bros. put out a separate press release promoting it. Had I known that it would garner over 1.7 million views, I might have taken some time to write a script!
I could teach 1000 students a year for 17 centuries before I’d reach that many people. This is the real payoff for science consulting for Hollywood – you can leverage people’s interest in a popular culture event to promote some real science. The video describes scenes from the film, and then discusses what real science principles would have to be involved – or broken – for it to occur. The clip was nominated for a national Webby award, and won a regional Emmy award. In contrast, Albert Einstein never won a regional Emmy award (the differences begin there!).
What else would you like to share? Anything you can share about your next project?
I did a very small amount of consulting for Green Lantern and I have done much more work for another superhero film that is scheduled for release next year – I’ll have much more to say about that at the proper time (I’ve done consulting for large high tech corporations, but nothing is as scary as the Non-Disclosure Agreements you sign in Hollywood!).
From the Freshman Seminar class to writing my book to consulting with The Science and Entertainment Exchange, this has been a very fun experience. It appears that there is a genuine interest in science in the general public. It is my opinion, having given talks at venues ranging from comic book conventions to the Library of Congress, that people are NOT anti-intellectual. Rather, they are anti-snobbery. There is a real interest, and a real need, for science outreach. Our task is to figure out how to meet that need without coming across as pedantic or talking down to the audience. But we’re smart—we should be able to figure this out!