This is a golden age of geekdom, says The Physics of Superheroes author James Kakalios

James Kakalios, photo: Martina Pavloušková / Czech Radio

With the right springs, would somebody really be able to leap over buildings like Czech WWII urban legend Pérák? Which superhero’s powers are the most credible? And just why are there so many superhero movies today? Recently I discussed those questions and more with James Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes, who was in the Czech Republic to give a talk at Colours of Ostrava’s Melting Pot forum. But the US scientist first explained how he had come to use superhero stories to teach physics.

James Kakalios,  photo: Martina Pavloušková / Czech Radio
"I'm a physics professor at the University of Minnesota and I'm also a long-time comic book fan.

"That means that I'm technically a geek and a nerd. Sorry to your listeners, but I'm already married.

"I was teaching Introductory Physics and one day I was just trying to come up with an exam problem that hadn't been done 100 times already.

"And being a comic book nerd, it occurred to me that the death of Spider-man's girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, in, as all your listeners know, The Amazing Spider-man No. 121, would be a perfect illustration of momentum and impulse.

"So I put it in the exam, the students enjoyed it, and I said, Hey, maybe I'll start bringing in other examples and we can try to analyse them from a physics point of view."

Does this go down equally well with female and male students?

"It does. More so nowadays than it did 20 years ago, when I first started doing this.

"I ascribe that to the movies. Back when I first started, there were only a couple of movies and it was mostly just the comic books themselves.

"But now everybody knows these characters, thanks to the successful movies.

"They're popular I believe with men and women and sometimes in these classes we have more women than men."

What superhero's powers are most believable from the point of view of physics?

"Well powers themselves, being able to violate the laws of nature, are not believable at all.

"There are some characters, some heroes and villains, who don't actually have powers themselves.

“Super powers themselves, being able to violate the laws of nature, are not believable at all.”

"You think of Batman. But of course the number of times that Batman has been knocked out in 80 years of fighting crime, he should have permanent brain damage by now."

"But you also think of, say, Iron Man, who uses technology to fight crime.

"Every aspect of Iron Man's armour we can build today, with one exception: we don't know how to make the energy supply.

"He has a little arc reactor in his chest that puts out the power of three nuclear power plants and is the size of a hockey puck.

"And if we knew how to do that, we wouldn't need superheroes."

Is there anything that we see today in superhero movies or comics that you expect some day will come down the line and will exist in the real world?

"One thing that's actually coming already is something in Iron Man that we don't even notice very much.

"Whenever Iron Man starts off and flies or fires repulsor rays out of his gloves, we never see him press a button, we never see him give a voice command.

"He just thinks about it and it happens.

"In the comic books it's explained that he has a cybernetic helmet that picks up his thought waves and transmits it to the suit.

"And this is actually real. There are scientists who are developing cybernetic helmets that pick up the very weak electromagnetic waves that are generated in your brain when you think.

Photo: Penguin
"They amplify them and can then transmit them via Bluetooth to a computer or to some other device.

"These scientists and engineers are not trying to make an Iron Man suit, but they are trying to develop treatments for paralysis and prosthetic limbs.

"So there are some things that you would think to be total fantasy if you read them in a comic book...

"When I read them in a comic book 50 years ago, I thought they were total fantasy.

"But they're turning out to be real today."

Is it frustrating for you if you come across bad science [in superhero movies or comics] or even really, really ridiculous science?

"Sometimes it's not frustrating so much as funny. When it's really, really bad you notice it and you laugh.

"But from the point of view of the comic books, or from the point of view of the movies, that's a terrible thing.

"This is why actually Hollywood and TV creators are talking more and more to professors.

"Because they know that any time an audience member is laughing at the bad science in a movie is a moment when they're not paying attention to the story.

"So they try to make things just good enough that you don't notice it, without it turning into a boring physics lesson."

But there is some suspension of disbelief with all of these superheroes?

"Absolutely there's a suspension of disbelief.

"Even for Batman, who doesn't have any powers – that you'd have some billionaire who would dress up like Dracula and go out at night and beat up muggers – there's a suspension of disbelief.

"The thing is, if you play fair with an audience... if you say, OK, we're going to say that, say, The Flash can run at super speed, then whatever problems he has, or whatever traps he's in, he can only escape them using his super speed.

"But if suddenly he's able to fly or shoot lazer beams from his eyes, you'd say, Wait, wait, you're cheating, that's not playing fair.

"In the comics it's explained that Iron Man has a cybernetic helmet that picks up his thought waves and transmits it to the suit – and this is actually real today.”

"And I think the audience, as long as you lay out what the hero can do and cannot do, then I think it's perfectly OK."

From your perspective, which superhero has the coolest power?

"I don't know about the coolest, but I know the power that I would love.

"Whenever I'm late, whenever I'm stuck in rush hour traffic, whenever my plane has been cancelled, I wish I had super speed, so that I could run and just get to where I need to go."

Have you heard of this Czech superhero, a kind of Spring-heeled Jack figure who fought the Nazis called Pérák?

"I learned about Pérák very recently but when I did some research on it I thought it was so great that I put him in my talk that I will be giving here at Melting Pot, about the physics of superheroes.

"I will use Pérák to speak about conservation of energy. And we will calculate how strong his springs have to be in order for him to make his leaps."

Is it possible for somebody, if they had the right kind of springs on their feet, to leap over buildings?

"Yes and no [laughs]. The type of spring that you need has to be much stronger than steel, and I'm not sure that we know how to make a metal that would be that springy that it would enable one to leap that tall.

"But now we have a goal and we know what we're working for, so perhaps I just need to get back into the lab and get to work on it."

Generally speaking, why do you think superhero movies in particular are so popular?

"The reason they're so popular now is probably the same reason these characters that were first introduced 50, 60, 70 years ago are still being published in comic books today.

"These characters speak to something basic.

"Spider-man gains his powers and first tries to use them for selfish reasons. And then he realises that with great power must also come great responsibility.

"That's a lesson. That's a story that resonates today as much as it did back in 1962.

'Pérák',  photo: Krátký film Praha
"We all have powers. We all have gifts and talents.

"How we choose to use them – selfishly, for our own personal gain, or to help others – determines the stories that we're in.

"These comic books can tell engaging stories and then at the end of the story the bad guy gets punched [laughs]. How great is that?!"

Do you ever feel there are too many? Especially with the Marvel ones, it seems like every month there's a new movie.

"I wish [laughs]. Listen, I'm old enough that I remember the most horrible superhero TV shows and horrible superhero movies.

"The Superman movies weren't bad and the first Batman movies weren't bad.

"When I was growing up I went through this long period, the desert of geekdom but now we're finally in a golden age of geekdom.

"You know, if they make too many of them people will stop going and they won't make so many of them.

"As long as they keep the quality up I think people will be happy."

You describe yourself as a geek and a nerd. Today being a geek or a nerd seems really mainstream. How do you view that pretty big shift in the culture?

"It is a big shift, but it still hasn't fully occurred.

"When I look back at comic books back in the 1960s, there were many stories that featured Earth being attacked by giant monsters, every month another giant monster.

"The police, the military could not stop them and Earth would be doomed if not for the efforts of one scientist, who figured out the one weakness of the monster.

"There it was understood that science is going to save us, scientists were going to save us.

"And now science, in some countries, is under attack.

"You should make decisions based upon scientific knowledge, not the last person you saw yelling on TV.”

"At the same time, as citizens and voters we're expected to have opinions about scientific and technological questions, whether it's climate change, nanotechnology, genetically modified organisms.

"So the more we can convey science to the public, who has to make the decisions, who should make these decisions, the better.

"But you should make these decisions based upon knowledge, not based upon the last person you saw yelling on TV.

"I think that will lead to better results for everyone."

But in general on this issue of geeks becoming the mainstream, do you feel like you used to be an outsider and now you're not?

"Yes, that is absolutely true. I did feel a bit more of an outsider and now certainly not. That's exactly right.

"But on the other hand [laughs], whenever I feel too accepted there's always my family to bring me back to earth [laughs]."