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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."

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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