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Can You Learn Physics from a Comic Book?


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SAN DIEGO–You won’t learn much physics watching a sci-fi movie or TV show, but reading an old comic book or taking Jim Kakalios’s "Physics of Superheroes" seminar at the University of Minnesota might inspire you to figure out if the Flash would consume all of Earth’s oxygen if he ran at nearly the speed of light.

Jim Kakalios"Comic books often get their physics right," at least once you accept an initial impossible premise, like the idea that a man can fly like a bat or faster than a speeding bullet, Kakalios said here Friday at a "science of superheroes" session at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Kakalios [left] taught his first freshman seminar on the physics of superheroes in 2001 in an effort to wake up his students. Now you can buy his book on the topic.

The trick is to convey the science without dumbing it down while also not turning off your audience, he said. Straight explanations of physics generally will cow a lay person into not asking questions. "He thinks he doesn’t understand [physics] because he is not smart enough," Kakalios said. But if teachers and scientists talk about Spiderman or Superman, lay people tend to ask questions and might actually remember some principles of quantum mechanics or Newton’s Second Law.

One of Kakalios’s students calculated that it would take Flash several million years to use up all 10^40th (10e40) oxygen molecules in Earth’s atmosphere if he ran at nearly the speed of light. Just hearing that story, I now have hope that I’ll remember that 10 to the 40th power figure.

The once painful epithets of "nerd" and "geek" are losing their negative connotations, Kakalios said, adding that he doesn’t buy that Americans are anti-intellectual. "No one wants a dumb brain surgeon. Nobody wants a dumb auto mechanic. You want the best qualified and brightest people you can have," he said, though he added that Americans also hate snobs and condescension.

Professors have a responsibility to teach science to the curious masses in a way that they can grasp it, Kakalios contended. Aron Coleite, left, Joe Pokaski

Earlier in the session, Sidney Perkowitz of Emory University gave sci-fi movies a mixed grade for scientific accuracy and education, as he ran through the results of his analysis of 120 movies (detailed in his 2007 book, "Hollywood Science"). Most of these movies start with a nugget of real science, but "they simply don’t always treat the science very well, to put it mildly," he said. And scientists are often stereotyped as kooks or madmen.

The worst sci-fi movie in terms of science? The Core, he said. Better is Moon. Marooned was recommended by Kakalios.

Joe Pokaski, a screenwriter for NBC’s "Heroes," [on left in picture at right], in which everyday people discover and deal with acquiring superpowers, said the show’s writers have sweaty, intense debates about topics such as invisibility during writing sessions, but the reality is that storytelling must trump science. "We absolutely bastardize science terms to the point where your toes would curl," he said.

Alex TseFor sci-fi screenwriters, authenticity and making the audience care about characters are the goals, more than totally accurate science, said Alex Tse, Watchmen screenwriter.

"I don’t know shit about science," said Tse [left]. "I’m probably the least qualified person to be on this panel. The reason I wanted to come here is if you look at the work I’m trying to do and the work that I buy and aspire to do, there is a plausibility in science that I think adds to a timeless quality of a film for me anyway, that makes it have a lasting effect. You have some films that will just be kind of ridiculous, and they are fun and entertaining to watch, but they don’t have that lasting effect on me."

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  1. 1. Jude from Flushing 5:37 pm 02/20/2010

    When I was a kid in the ’50s, we often got comic books in school that illustrated scientific principles in a simple but entertaining manner. They were like graphic textbooks & I still remember much of the science I learned that way. There weren’t enough science teachers or lab space for us boomers & this was an effective strategy–at least for me!

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  2. 2. voma 6:40 pm 02/20/2010

    http://www.edubolics.com/store Here’s a physics ‘comic book’ has already been written. "Jack Dogg’s Guide To Forces In the Universe" It’s available for sale currently on this site and is thorough. It’s not for everybody… just people who are willing to admit they’d rather enjoy looking at ridiculous pictures while learning the fundamentals of science than the harangue found in many textbooks..

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  3. 3. candide 6:48 pm 02/20/2010

    Both of the other comments above are well and good – but miss the point.

    The article talks about "the idea that a man can fly like a bat or faster than a speeding bullet" not Physics presented in an illustrated (comic) format.

    The first comment sums it up: "There weren’t enough science teachers or lab space for us …". There still isn’t for US students.

    These reasons, and more, are why the US seriously lags in science education.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Mr. C 1:09 am 02/21/2010

    From a science teacher’s perspective, the majority of US high school students are less than enthusiastic about learning science. The lure of iPods, video games, the opposite sex, and the million other distractions they encounter daily leaves only the most self-directed students interested in science. Peer pressure rules in US public schools, academics drools.

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  5. 5. abarel 2:25 am 02/21/2010

    But without science, where would all these wonderful gadgetry come from? I was one of the uber-geeks in school who loved science, history, and all other geek subjects. The best teachers were ones that made the lesson relevant. When talking about chemical reactions in the air that dealt with fire, my chemistry teacher made bubbles from methane, stuck his hand into it until you couldn’t see his hand and then lit it on fire. 10 years later and that scene is still fresh in my mind. So is the fact that he told me he could use my Starbursts as a fuel for a bomb. He was, is, and always will be the best Chemistry teacher I know. Teachers need to understand that they are not dealing with themselves or the student’s parents: boring lectures will not get the attention of today’s students; being current and willing to give them a show is what is needed. I was always a teacher’s pet (I TA’d in a Spanish class and I took French in school just because the teacher was one of my favorites). When talking about lasers, bring an old dvd player or cd player (you can buy crappy, broken one’s at goodwill for 5-20 bucks) and use the laser in that for demonstrations. Teach entertainingly and you’d be amazed at the retention of information.
    By the way: I hated math and yet the only math teacher that I worked for and received an A from is the same one who told me that the only reason I should care about what he was teaching was so that I could pass his class and he could get paid. He didn’t believe it but it’s what I wanted to hear so that ‘s the answer he gave me and I worked my rear off for him so that I deserved the A I graduated with.

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  6. 6. glassbell 10:41 am 02/21/2010

    Larry Gonnick: http://www.larrygonick.com/html/pub/pub.html. No better example of this genre than his "Cartoon Guide to . . . " series. Physics, Chemistry, Statistics, Genetics, etc., not to mention the history books.

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  7. 7. voma 12:27 am 02/22/2010

    The bottom line is that if a "Comic book" can at least instill somebody with some factual knowledge on fundamental science principles while entertaining that reader, that approach to learning is much more functional in the long run for reaching a huge majority of the population who don’t take easy to the maths and sciences.
    Gonnick’s Cartoon Guide is pretty good.. "Jack Dogg’s Compendium Guide to Forces in the Universe", is just as good (even more thorough in some respects) but just different. It’s currently at grass roots level so it hasn’t gotten much publicity yet, but Vol I alone (~400+ pages) covers the fundamental concepts of motion gravity, statics and even oscillations thoroughly (and more). Volumes II-IV are coming soon. Books like this and Gonnick’s actually can make a difference for a lot of readers struggling with understanding the sciences, but I guess the only way to prove that is that you’d have to see it to believe it. Read them! Get the hardcover version of "Jack Dogg’s Guide to Forces.." it has some thorough appendices on vector math and equations and other tidbits of surreal comedic nonsense in the back ( and I do mean surreal..)

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  8. 8. lisatomic 3:21 am 02/22/2010

    Getting the physics of comics correct is admirable. But the physics that already exists in nature is, well, perfect– and passive observation of this obviously doesn’t mean people, in general, will come to understand physics. So unless these comics are providing explanations and provoking directed thought, simply reproducing physically accurate motion or correct numbers won’t help people understand anything.

    I’m sure that the "science of superheroes" course is excellent, but this article is diluting the point. The point is to teach people by engaging their interests, and by working within a context they are familiar and comfortable with. Comic books are a particularly great context, as they are potentially rich with physical concepts. However, to put any emphasis on factual correctness, numbers and trivia simply furthers a common, problematic misconception that the importance of physics is in a collection of correct facts. The important part is the reasoning, the method and the understanding from which we can obtain those facts when we want them. So, don’t worry if you forget the number 10^40– remembering that, without an understanding of the methods used to find it, is not physics.

    To suggest that people can really learn physics by passively observing even correct physics, or even by absorbing bits of trivia devoid of a meaningful physical explanation, is misleading.

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  9. 9. candide 8:41 am 02/22/2010

    Shanghai Jiaotong University has the feel of an Ivy League institution.

    … it is so rich in science and engineering talent that Microsoft and Intel have moved into a research park directly adjacent to the school.

    From: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/technology/22cyber.html?src=linkedin

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  10. 10. jcarnes 2:35 pm 02/22/2010

    I don’t think this article suggests that by reading this book you will able to demonstrate and articulate correct physics. It’s simply an entertaining guide that explains certain laws and principles of physics and if someone reading it can then understand more than they did previously then it has achieved it’s objective. I’ve read the book and enjoyed it.

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  11. 11. voma 4:54 pm 02/22/2010

    lisatomic… I agree. Therefore, check "Jack Dogg’s Guide to Forces" out and Larry Gonnick’s Cartoon Physics as well. These books are promoting the aims you are insinuating and then some.. Although entertaining (as opposed to assuming the trend that having to describe the physics of things have to be boring), these books give relevant physical scenarios that are NOT devoid of meaningful physical explanation to describe the various phenomena of mechanics and other realms of how the physics of our universe works..

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  12. 12. Mime Nonsense 5:54 pm 02/22/2010

    In Moore’s Watchmen, there weren’t many things people could learn physics from. The movie itself wasn’t in full detail so that the audience who haven’t read the comic could understand what exactly was going on. The science behind how Dr.Manhattan came to be could be misleading.

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  13. 13. jpWxMan 2:04 pm 02/23/2010

    Anyone remember the movie "Twister"? As a meteorologist, I was just excited to have a movie that involved our science. But after watching the movie, it hit me that, while enjoyable from a purely entertainment point, the movie abuses science to the point of actually putting people in harms’ way if they think they can chase and avoid tornadoes the way they did in the movie.

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  14. 14. labellaflora 7:05 pm 02/23/2010

    First, I want to apologize for the rambling manner in which this comment is presented.

    Elementary school is the level to get kids hooked on science. Students are interested and want to learn. Science is magical to young kids.

    When I started teaching at middle school 18 years ago, the communities outside of our school reinforced the kids view that these subjects were unimportant. Families believed that a middle school education was really enough. Making six or ten dollars an hour seemed like a lot to a child (and still does).

    There has been a slow changing of the tides as parents have experienced the kind of future their kids will have without enough education. Parents have begun to get higher education for themselves, which raises their expectations for their kids. Student interest in learning has increased as the community has pressured students and families to accept higher standards for education.

    It seems to me that this is the conundrum: time spent on learning each subject is not enough to build the background knowledge need for later higher grade levels. At the same time, we are trying to force too much knowledge at ages when kids brains are not really ready for it.

    I sometimes question if we are really clear as to what students need to know and when they need to know it. Maybe we need to reconsider the format of how subjects are presented. Or maybe dont separate the subjects in the first place.

    Ive become philosophical about this. Maybe instead of expecting each child to get it all, we should aim at a certain percentage of children getting various concepts, so the information is out there in the community.

    In the end, I believe knowing how and where to find information is the most useful thing a child can learn.

    Link to this
  15. 15. labellaflora 7:06 pm 02/23/2010

    First, I want to apologize for the rambling manner in which this comment is presented.

    Elementary school is the level to get kids hooked on science. Students are interested and want to learn. Science is magical to young kids.

    When I started teaching at middle school 18 years ago, the communities outside of our school reinforced the kids view that these subjects were unimportant. Families believed that a middle school education was really enough. Making six or ten dollars an hour seemed like a lot to a child (and still does).

    There has been a slow changing of the tides as parents have experienced the kind of future their kids will have without enough education. Parents have begun to get higher education for themselves, which raises their expectations for their kids. Student interest in learning has increased as the community has pressured students and families to accept higher standards for education.

    It seems to me that this is the conundrum: time spent on learning each subject is not enough to build the background knowledge need for later higher grade levels. At the same time, we are trying to force too much knowledge at ages when kids brains are not really ready for it.

    I sometimes question if we are really clear as to what students need to know and when they need to know it. Maybe we need to reconsider the format of how subjects are presented. Or maybe dont separate the subjects in the first place.

    Ive become philosophical about this. Maybe instead of expecting each child to get it all, we should aim at a certain percentage of children getting various concepts, so the information is out there in the community.

    In the end, I believe knowing how and where to find information is the most useful thing a child can learn.

    Link to this
  16. 16. arivero 12:30 pm 02/27/2010

    Eastern culture has been a good influence in this field. Japanese superheroes *do* training, to get their superpowers. And even when flying, action and reactions is contemplated: a change in the trajectory involves tho lauch a small piece of matter at high speed, we all saw it in films as Tiger & Dragon and such.

    Link to this

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