The Physics of Superheroes

Background

It's funny how pop-culture ideas often come out in pairs. Bug's Life and Antz. Deep Impact and Armageddon. And oh yes – The Science of Superheroes (2002) and this book "The Physics of Super-Heroes" from 2005.

Both of them aimed to run the reality-ruler over comic-book science and let us know how much truth there is in comic books. SPOILER Alert – not very much.

This later book is written by Dr. James Kakalios. He's a physicist through-and-through, and so you won't find any biology in this book (a key factor which separates it from the earlier The Science of Superheroes). There's a little bit of chemistry in here, but even that is physics-based and entirely at the nitty-gritty molecular-bonding and (sub-)atomic particle levels.

Story Details

  The Physics of Superheroes
Summary: Discussion of Superhero powers, including Spider-Man
Publisher: Gotham Books
Writer: James Kakalios

The book is 384 pages, with lengthy introductions, bibliographies and appendices. Hardback is 6" x 9.2", paperback is 5.25" x 8". Comic panels (in black and white) are shown in most chapters.

The main content is structured by "physics topic" (unlike the earlier The Science of Superheroes which was organized by superhero character). There are three main sections – Mechanical (Newtonian) Physics, Light & Heat (Radiation) Physics, and Quantum Physics.

Inside each are chapters, starting with: "Up, Up, and Away (Forces and Motion)", then "Deconstructing Krypton (Newton's Law of Gravity)", etc. Each chapter introduces a concept in physics, then nominates a relevant superhero power as a use case, and springs from it to examine the practical consequences.

The "academic level" of this book is set around introductory first-year college. The maths is kept at high-school algebra. Earlier chapters do introduce some basic physics equations, but the formulae are dumped by the wayside by the time we get to quantum physics in favor of conceptual explanations and similies.

General Comments

In terms of guest stars, the recurring stalwarts of the chapters are "Flash", "Superman", and "The Atom". But Spider-Man gets a few decent mentions along with Hulk, Ant-Man, and a few other Marvel heroes.

Kakalios knows his material well (he teaches a course entitled "Everything I Needed to Know About Physics I Learned from Comic Books" at the University of Minnesota). He leads us on a scenic journey through two centuries of physics, travelling carefully like a good tour-guide, explaining points of interest and moving on just before we get bored.

Now, the "Boston Globe" critic is quoted on the cover as saying:

...according to Kakalios, comic books get their physics right more often that you'd think.

Frankly, I think the Boston Globe is overly generous towards comic writers. My verdict is that they're mostly caught with their pants down around their ankles when you take anything more than a superficial glance at what's actually happening on the page.

Kakalios does give the writers a fair chance. His approach is to grant a single "miracle exception" – allowing the comic-book character a free-pass to liberally break (or control or manipulate) one aspect of the laws of physics. He walks us through how the law is supposed to work, then outlines his miracle exception as an argument for the defense.

Having done that, he turns prosecutor and follows the consequences through to their (un-)natural conclusion. More often than not, despite the generous "miracle exception", the whole ill-considered chain of comic-book events comes unraveling within a single tug at a loose thread.

Overall Rating

The book starts off as being about Superheroes, but the physics eventually sneaks to the fore. By the time we get to section three, the book has shamelessly become "A Dummy's Guide to Sub-Atomic Physics", and the tie-in to comic books becomes increasingly distant.

But I have no complaints about this becoming a physics book by stealth, because it's a very readable one. Kakalios is a good writer, and funny with it too. His corny side-joke footnotes are genuinely funny and raised regular chuckles (or groans). I was genuinely intrigued by the physics concepts, and I will probably buy one of the other "recommended reading" books from the appendix.

I give this Four Webs.

I would give it a higher rating, except for the books extensive use of the Imperial system rather than metric. Seriously guys, 95.6% of the world uses the metric system, and science is way easier in metric!

Footnote

I did find a couple of points to argue with Dr. K! I if I ever meet him at a dinner party I'll definitely be complaining that his interpretation of Flash running up vertical walls seems overly generous to my point of view. Also his argument in regards to Superman's acceleration leverages an unsupported (and unnecessary) assumption in regards to the duration of the leap, and could have been done more simply by considering the distance of acceleration rather than the duration!

But such niggles were few and far-between. In general, Doctor Kakalios does a great job of laying out convincing assumptions and arguments. Well done, James.