Prof’s love of comics, physics collides with world of books

Physics professor Jim Kakalios wrote "The Physics of Superheroes."

Mark Remme

Superheroes might be able to save lives, but few have the ability to calculate the velocity and momentum they use to do so.

That’s where University professor Jim Kakalios steps in.

Kakalios, who has taught at the University for 17 years, has made a name for himself by combining his first love, comic books, with his professional passion, physics.

“It’s my hobby,” Kakalios said. “There are sports fans; there are NASCAR (fans), Star Trek (fans).

“I read comics before I could formally read,” he said. “The first thing they give kids is picture books.”

Through scattered figurines ranging from Spider-man to Superman displayed in his office, Kakalios’ hobby echoes his undying enthusiasm for comics.

Soon the public will catch a glimpse of Kakalios’ unorthodox teaching style of understanding physics when his book “The Physics of Superheroes” is released this week.

The book outlines different physics functions using story problems dealing only with comic book characters and scenarios, Kakalios said.

No traditional problems dealing with pulleys will be present, he said.

“If you can make someone entertained or enjoyed about what you’re trying to teach them, they’ll be more receptive,” he said.

Kakalios introduced the idea of combining comic book superheroes with physics in the early 1990s.

“It happened organically as I taught a regular freshman physics class,” Kakalios said. “I was trying to think of an example to illustrate impulse and momentum, and Spider-Man Issue 121 occurred to me,” he said.

In the issue, Spider-Man’s girlfriend is thrown off a bridge. Spider-Man saves her from hitting the water only to find her dead despite his efforts.

Kakalios said the physics data shows that if Spider-Man’s girlfriend fell 300 feet, she would be traveling 95 mph by the time she was stopped by Spider-Man’s web.

The impact of the web, which would take only one-half second, would have snapped her neck, Kakalios said.

Kakalios’ teaching style has caused a stir around the physics department.

“(Professor Kakalios’ style) really engages students to look at physics when they might not look at physics at all,” said Allen Goldman, physics department head. “It’s been very highly reviewed.”

Kakalios’ approach sparked a new freshman seminar in 2002 titled “Everything I Know of Science I Learned from Reading Comic Books.”

Students in the seminar didn’t necessarily have science majors. People from many disciplines, including journalism majors and Carlson School of Management students, signed up, Kakalios said.

University junior Daniel Amborn, an English major, took Kakalios’ ideas outside the classroom.

“I thought it was a very interesting way to get people interested in science,” Amborn said. “Equations are much more engaging if you apply it to Superman leaping tall buildings in a single bound.”