James Kakalios

COULD SUPERMAN really fly faster than a speeding bullet? Or leap tall buildings in a single bound? Since 2001, University of Minnesota professor James Kakalios has been teaching a super-popular freshman seminar to answer just those sorts of questions. Based on the class, his book, The Physics of Superheroes, uses comic book characters to explain principles of physics—and battle the nefarious forces of ignorance.

What superpower do you most covet?

With all I have to do in a given day, I’d like to have super speed, especially when I’m stuck on 35W.

Who is your favorite superhero?

I’ll always love the Flash; as you increase your velocity to the speed of light, there’s lots of physics to discuss and describe. I also like the Atom. There’s a scene in a comic book where he’s having a conversation as he’s sitting on an electron and a friend says, ‘We’re smaller than oxygen molecules, how are we breathing?’ The Atom says, ‘I’m not sure,’ which is kind of a wink to the reader—I know, you know, we all know. I call this a “miracle exception”—one thing you have to buy into to make the superhero plausible. I also like the Atom because his secret identity is Ray Palmer, a physics professor.

What does your non-superhero work entail?
I’m a solid-state experimentalist; that means I work in a lab as opposed to just doing calculations. I’m working in collaboration with professors in mechanical engineering and chemical engineering and neuroscience—from the nano to the neuro.

Why should the average person care about physics?
I want to get physics across to people who only plan to take one physics class—because they’re going to be voters, and we live in a technological age. We’re being called upon more and more to have opinions on scientific and technological points, and you don’t want to be at the mercy of all these “experts.” Some of them are right, and some are just bloviating.

What can Governor Pawlenty learn from your work as he shapes his Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math initiative?
The traditional ways that we teach physics work fine for many students; they certainly worked for me. But there are others who are intimidated. If you start talking about why air bags save lives, they’ll say, “I want to know this, but I’m not going to get it.” But if you talk about how Spider-Man’s girlfriend died when she fell off the bridge even though he caught her in his web at the last second, they’ll follow you longer into the story and not even realize that they’re being taught something. Then you explain the science behind it, the need to increase the time the force has to stop you, and you say, “This is the same principle behind air bags.”

You write that every superhero has an Achilles’ heel. What’s yours?

Super distraction. There are so many things that interest me. Robert Benchley wrote that there’s no limit to what he could accomplish in a day provided it wasn’t what he was supposed to be doing at the time.

How many dolls, er, action figures do you own?

Um, more than I have shelf space for. We’ll leave it at that; it’s a sore point. MM

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