The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios

The Physics of SuperheroesThe Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mostly, I picked this book up because I like physics. While I’ve been enjoying the slew of superhero movies coming out over the past few years, I don’t really read comic books. Or rather, I didn’t really read comic books, but now I want to start. Not that I need another hobby…

Do comic book fans read books like this and get hooked on physics? Are the writers/artists who create comic books physics nuts? Aside from roughly one “miracle exception” per superhero (usually how they got their powers), and a couple superheros whose powers are physic-ly impossible, the physics we see in comics are reasonably true to life. If Kitty Pryde’s miracle exception is “being able to alter her macroscopic quantum wave function” (254) then she could indeed pass through solid objects via quantum tunneling. That’s a real thing. Just not a real thing that typically affects…you know. Walls. Slipping through walls wasn’t a super power I was expecting to make the realism cut. Others I assumed would be easily verified turned out to be utterly impossible. The frequency with which we miniaturize commonplace technology led me to believe Silver Age* Ant-Man’s shrinking potion was completely doable. But no. And don’t even get me started on the Atom. I don’t want to spoil everything, but we aren’t going to see potions allowing reversible miniaturization of people or objects in the foreseeable future. Possibly ever. Despite the comics which say otherwise, resizing yourself at will – by an easily discernible amount, anyhow – is not a thing we’ll ever do, no matter which side of the mushroom we eat. (Sorry to all the Alice in Wonderland fans out there). There is a wealth of unexpected consolation prizes represented in these pages, so don’t let it get you down.

Speaking of getting bogged down, Kakalios’ experience as a university professor stands the reader in good stead through this book. He excels at distilling complicated processes and concepts into graspable images for the layman. If you finished high school, most of this book will be completely manageable for you. Even if you hate algebra. Possibly even if you hated physics. Kakalios mentions how little his students appreciate the traditional physics problems of balls rolling down ramps and what have you. But when a lecture on momentum and mass involves the Flash, or Superman, suddenly no one complains about being bored. If my high school physics classes had included the humour Kakalios speckles throughout his book, I think even the questions on bowling balls would have been interesting. And that’s saying something.

*Kakalios focuses mostly on Silver Age superheroes, but also discusses Golden Age superheroes.

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