Thursday, April 12, 2012

On the Coffee Table: James Kakalios

Even though Kakalios begins with K, this is not my A-Z post. For today's entry, scroll down one post or try this link.

Title: The Physics of Superheroes (Spectacular Second Edition)
Author: James Kakalios

Image via James Kakalios

James Kakalios is a physics professor at the University of Minnesota. Some years ago, Dr. Kakalios developed a freshman seminar in which he taught basic physics principles through the use of comic book characters and stories. The book is intended to do the same. Such questions are posed as:

Could metal bracelets really stop bullets?
Could being from another planet truly be the source of Superman's super strength?
Could Spider-Man's webbing genuinely be strong enough to support his weight and allow him to swing from building to building?

The class sounds like a lot of fun. Kakalios is clearly an expert in both science and comic books and brings a keen sense of humor to his exploration of both.

The book is very good. However, in terms of recommending it, I think it really depends what you want from it. All of the material on the history of comics was excellent - exactly what I've been craving. The discussion of science was very thorough and if you're looking for a relatively lighthearted intro to physics basics, I think this book is a good choice. But, if you're really in it for the comics and have just a passing interest in the science, you might consider something else. Mind you, I got a lot out of the physics discussions, helping me to make sense of the courses I took in both high school and college way back when. But it's tough going at times. I'm fine with physics as long as we're just talking Newtonian laws of motion. Once we get into work, energy and all that jazz, I tend to lose my way. Some of the more advanced material was pretty cool. The chapter on quantum mechanics genuinely gave me chills. Part of my problem is that I'm a numbers guy and Kakalios deliberately stays away from math as much as possible. More diagrams would have been nice, too.

I came away with greater admiration for many superheroes and their creators. Aquaman is cast in a particularly favorable light when pitted against real world science. I have a greater admiration for spiders, too. The chapter on Spidey's webbing also outlines the capabilities of the threads of real arachnids - very impressive!

I'm glad to have read the book and am particularly grateful for the recommended reading list at the end. I now have a solid direction for where to go next in my comics explorations.


  1. I picked up at one point, but it was on the groaning nightstand sandwiched between a number of similar(ish) books and didn't quite hold my attention. I think it felt an eensy bit gimmicky ... ?

    Squid, Newtonian mechanics?? You've so much more to explore and let mess with your head! :)

  2. Thanks for your visit! I've used comics (as an English teacher) to teach my younger classes. There's so much to interest students and depending on the comics chosen, many of life's lessons. Then the students create their own comic book, the highlight of the term.


  3. Judging by your theme you must be a big baseball husband would be a huge fan of these posts!!
    Hope you're having fun with the Challenge,
    Monica, Older Mommy Still Yummy

  4. Sounds like a great book. I would also have loved to take that class. I love applying science to fiction.