Jim Kakalios is the best-selling author of The Physics of Everyday Things, The Physics of Super Heroes, and The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics. His mild-mannered alter ego is a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota.
Jayshree Seth: Eighty four percent of people say they wish they knew more about science. How can scientists better engage and inform the public? More importantly, can our next physics textbook be a comic book? We're getting amazing, uncanny and incredible this time on Science Champions.
Welcome to Science Champions. I'm your host, Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.
In a way, scientists are superheroes. Of course, most of us can't leap tall buildings in a single bound but we can use our powers of wonder, curiosity, and observation to unravel the mysteries of the universe.
Scientists know that our work is fascinating, useful, even fun. The challenge is communicating that to the public. What if we could make science just as exciting as the latest billion-dollar blockbuster? What cues can we take from popular culture to make science communication more compelling?
My guest this week has nearly 30 years of experience bringing superhero comics to the classroom. Jim Kakalios is a mild-mannered physics teacher with a secret identity. He's also the author of pop science books like "The Physics of Superheroes" and "The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics." Welcome, Jim.
Jim Kakalios: Hi.
JS: Tell us a little more about what you do.
JK: I'm Jim Kakalios, the Taylor Distinguished Professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota. By day, I'm a mild-mannered physics professor where my research is in condensed matter experimental physics.
Experimental means I work in the lab as opposed to doing theory. Condensed matter is a fancy way of saying solid state physics. My research actually goes from the nano to the neuro. I work on nanostructured semiconductors trying to develop new materials with superior properties for solar cells, and some transistors, or thermoelectric devices, and also collaborate with professors in neuroscience using techniques we developed the study, electronic noise in disordered semiconductors and applying them to voltage fluctuations in the brain.
But that's not why I'm on the show. I'm on this program because I'm also very active in science outreach and engagement with the general public. And I do this via popular talks or writing popular science books for a general audience trying to explain basic physics principles in an accessible way.
JS: Yes. it was great to be on the science panel with you just a few weeks ago at 3M. Now, since you're a superhero fan, can you give me your origin story? What led you to a career in science education?
JK: Well, even as a small kid I was interested in science. There were a few science programs that were on television. There was Walter Cronkite's, "The 21st Century," there were some early forerunners of things that would become Nova. But nope, this was before Nova.
Read science books as a kid. I liked the comic books where the hero was a scientist and their secret identity. Then in high school, I kind of thought I wasn't good enough for that and I just kind of drifted away. I got to go into law school just because I like to read and argue, crit to my parents.
And 11th-grade trigonometry teacher noticed that I was good in math and suggested patent law. And I looked into it and the more interesting the engineering seemed the less interesting the pre-law classes seemed.
So, when I went to City College of New York, I should mention that I grew up in Queens, New York. My dad was a New York cab driver and my mom stayed home and raised the kids. I went to City College of New York because at the time back in the mid-70s it was still tuition-free, which by an amazing coincidence turned out to be exactly what my family could afford.
And, started off by just an engineering major, but then I volunteered to work in a physics lab and wound up changing my major to physics, which drove my mother crazy because she was convinced that I was making myself unhirable.
But I really enjoyed the physics and took to it and wound up deciding when I got my degree that I didn't want that to be the end of my formal education, applied to graduate schools, went to the University of Chicago and got a PhD there.
Then, I did a postdoc at Xerox at the Palo Alto Research Center just outside of Stanford. And that was very, very satisfying. At the end of a few years, I had enough of those California winters and came to the University of Minnesota.
And partly that was also because at that point in the mid-80s, there were a lot of the industrial research labs were undergoing shakeups, but universities were still hiring, became a professor, and which turned out to have been a fabulous choice for me personally and professionally and so I became a professor.
Set up my own research program and taught students, really enjoyed the teaching, really enjoyed the research and had been here ever since.
JS: So how long have you been a teacher?
JK: Well, I didn't see, I joined the University of Minnesota in September 1988. So we're coming up on the 30 years now with no time off for good behavior, but it's been very rewarding.
JS: Congratulations. So after 30 years, how do you keep your students engaged? How do you keep the material fresh?
JK: I basically bring them, partly it's through a large number of dad jokes. And also, I had tried various things over the years, bringing in examples from pop culture to analyze in the class. I once did an entire review session using Star Wars examples in my introductory physics class.
And you take what you're seeing on screen and you then analyze it as if you were watching something that happened in reality and use the physics principles that you have learned and apply them to the situation.
And back in the 90s, I'll trying to come up with an exam problem concerning momentum and forces that hadn't been done 100 times before. It occurred to me that the death of Spider-Man's girlfriend in as everyone knows, amazing Spider-Man number 121 turns out to be a textbook illustration of impulse and momentum.
And I put this on the test and the students really seem to enjoy taking a situation from a comic book and analyzing it using the physics principles that they had learned. And so I started bringing more and more examples like that into the class which eventually led to my creating a class where the only examples came from superhero comic books and as much as possible, those cases where the comic books would get their science right.
JS: How does that Spider-Man example work specifically?
JK: You know, things like the Gwen Stacy situation, the Green Goblin knocks Gwen Stacy off the top of a bridge and she plummets to her doom. Spider-Man catches her in a webbing and brings her back up to the top of the bridge but discovers that she's dead even though he caught her in the webbing.
And that was like, you know, "Well, was this just like a bloodthirsty example? What would the physics say?" And you analyze it, and the physics says that she's going nearly 95 miles per hour by the time the webbing reaches her, and the physics says that the force it would take to stop her in say half a second would be about nearly 10 Gs, a deceleration of 10 Gs so it's not a little unreasonable that her neck would break.
And then when you realize that you can take these principles and apply them to something as unrealistic as a comic book, they might even be useful in the real world. It's for a dad jokes. Actually, the only one that I've actually thinking about right now is one that wouldn't work very well as a podcast at all because it's more of a visual joke, but where I demonstrate to the students that the speed of light is much faster than the speed of sound.
And I tell them that I'm going to race across the room at the speed of light, and then I'll say something, and then I actually walk at a very exaggerated, old-timey running pose. And I mouth something and then I come back to the center of the room. And I say, "Did you hear that? Hello, did you hear that?"
Because the movement of sound has eventually caught up with me. My own kids die a little bit every year when I do that joke in class. And I've already worked out what names they're going to change to when they can redo that.
JS: Yes, as parents, it is our duty to embarrass our children. I know I do it. So what do you think about how scientists are portrayed in pop culture? Is the overall sentiment positive or negative? And how has it changed in the past 20 years?
JK: I think it has become more positive. And partly that's because of efforts by the National Academy of Sciences, Science and Entertainment Exchange, where they match-make a scientist with Hollywood film or television creators and provide volunteer consulting work for them on their projects.
The TV and movie creators are trying to get the science right enough. They don't need to get it 100% right and they certainly aren't going to get it 100% right, but they need to get it right enough that the audience doesn't notice anything bogus because anytime the audience is questioning something on the screen is a moment when they're not paying attention to the story.
Similarly, then, this is an opportunity for scientists to try to get some real science or try to get something that's not egregiously wrong into mass media pop culture. So, on that level, it can be a win-win.
I think that yes, there has been a pause... I mean, for every mad scientist, evil villain in that you find you'll also see, you'll have a Tony Stark, you'll have a Shuri, T'Challa's sister in Wakanda, in the Black Panther movie. So you have a Bruce Banner though admittedly his experiments with gamma radiation didn't go so well.
And so, in that context, you are seeing that people could see that science can be both positive and negative. And that, what I also like is in some of the pop cultures, even the superhero movies you will find characters that are basically out-thinking the villain.
They are kind of using kind of the same skill set that we have in science, science research and creative problem-solving in order to defeat the villain. It's not just simply a question of who can punch the hardest, but out-thinking and being a step or two ahead of the villains is always...and it turns out to be very fruitful.
And that's the same skillset that you find, that you want in science. You want to always be...you're trying to be one step ahead of nature. You're always behind the curve, but you're trying to get ahead of it and to figure out the plot twist.
JS: It does seem like we have moved from scientists being villains to showing the positive impacts of science. Scientists in popular culture are solving problems instead of creating them.
JK: Right, right. And I think that that's great. Because actually, it's just to show that it's to some extent, science is a process by which we learn the rules of how the world and the universe operates.
Knowing those rules, we can then potentially build devices that exploit them, that make use of them and make our lives even better, but it is a process. And, so, in that sense, there is no inherent value to it unless of course, you place a value on a true understanding of the world or of...that understanding the university isn't that good, which I would agree with.
But you can then use these devices, you can use this knowledge for your own personal benefit or to harm others or you could use it to make life better for everyone around. That's partly, I think, the appeal of the superhero movies and why this has become such a big thing in the past, over 10 years now.
I mean, basically the superhero comics are, as a blogger Jim Henley once described it, a literature of ethics. Something happens to you, you gain the ability to run at super speed. Do you use this for personal selfish benefit or do you use your ability to help others?
And the thing is, we all have gifts and talents. We all have our own unique ability and how we choose to use them and employ them is, of course, what determines the kind of life that we lead. So in some sense that the superhero comics can provide a good guidepost in this realm. And, of course, they provide invaluable fashion.
JS: I've heard that with great power comes great responsibility.
JK: Exactly right. With great power, there must also come great responsibility. That is an important moral lesson imparted in a comic book. Another one that I really like is from an old 1960 issue of Superman when he thought he was dying a Virus X. Spoiler alert, he got better, but when he thought he was dying, Superman used his heat vision to curve a message to the people of Earth on the surface of the moon.
I guess because even if you think that you're going to die very soon, there's always time for a little super vandalism. Anyway, his message to the people of Earth was, "Be good to others, and every man can be a Superman."
JS: So you would say science as a practice is neutral. It's the scientist of the society that uses it for good or evil?
JK: Right. Once you have an understanding of atom and how they interact with light, you have quantum mechanics, you can make lasers and you can use these lasers in lots of different ways. They're not quite the death rays that everyone expected them to be, but there's lots of different applications that exploit this understanding of how atoms behave and how they interact with light.
And you can use them for positive purposes, or negative. What you choose to do is that's a separate choice. That's a separate decision. You can't exploit the personal selfish personal gain, say lasers, death rays unless you first know how to build them.
So, the knowledge of science and technology and engineering is absolutely necessary the first step even if you're going to take over the world, especially if you're going to take over the world.
JS: Absolutely. Most scientists I know don't wanna rule the world, they just wanna be left to their research. So let's talk about "The Physics of Superheroes." Can you describe what that project is?
JK: The book "The Physics of Superheroes" is an offshoot of a class that I created back in 2001 here at the University of Minnesota, that was originally called, "Everything I know about science I've learned from reading comic books," which my colleague say explains a great deal.
This was a freshman seminar class that was not tied to any particular curriculum, and it was open to anyone in the university. And, I thought just kind of as a fun challenge, "Could I create an entire class where the only illustrative examples came from superhero comic books?"
And so I would start off a regular physics class talking about forces and motion, changes in velocity, acceleration. And so, we started off this freshman seminar class talking about how much force would it take to leap a tall building in a single bound. And once you figure that out, you say, "Well, why would you be that strong?"
And you would be that strong, say, if your home planet had a larger gravity than that of Earth, which actually was the explanation that was provided for Superman's power when he first appeared in 1938.
"Well, we know how strong his legs have to be to leap a tall building in a single bound. What does that tell us about the gravity of Krypton?" And you work it out. How can I build the planet with that much gravity? And you talk about what determines the planet's gravity.
And you build on this, and you can get into all sorts of real physics by using illustrative examples from comic books. And then eventually you find out that you can make a planet like Krypton that had a gravity much larger than that of Earth.
The only problem is it's difficult to keep the planet from exploding, which is exactly what Krypton did. And that just illustrates an important principle. They couldn't put it in a comic book if it wasn't true. But with that, the course...and so the class was very successful.
In 2002, the first Spider-Man movie was going to open, and I thought, "Hey this would be a good opportunity to get some science in the newspaper." So I wrote an essay, an OP-ED for the Minneapolis Star Tribune about the death of Gwen Stacy in 1973, and how it illustrates changes in momentum and external forces.
They published this. The university put out a little press release, the Spider-Man movie opened all on the same day. The university has put out press releases about me before about my research on disordered semiconductor, electronic noise, result, zero.
You write one story about Spider-Man however, and of course, it helped that Spider-Man was this big Box Office blockbuster, and I was like a viral media star for about a week, and that led to a lot of attention. What it really led to, which was very gratifying, was hundreds and hundreds of emails, students and teachers and people long out of college who liked this idea of using superheroes to illustrate physics, and asked if I had a book.
JS: How has the public reception been for the book?
JK: It has been super gratifying. The book came out in 2005. There was a second edition in 2009 and it's been translated into six or seven different languages. I have given talks all over the world about "The Physics of Superheroes."
The audiences have always been very receptive and very positive. And the book has been out long enough that I now actually will sometimes meet people who were in college, didn't know what to study, read the book, became physicists, now they're high school physicist, the true superhero. And it's been very gratifying, very satisfying.
JS: So this is a way to make science more accessible to people, right?
JK: The thing is, I think that a lot of people are actually interested in understanding more science. It is my personal belief that the American people are not really anti-intellectual, what they are is anti-snobbery. They don't like to be lectured to, they don't like to be harangued or made to feel dumb.
But they're also, at some level, have a bit of an insecurity about their ability to understand the math, science, and engineering that underlies a lot of technology that we do. And if you are...when I'm talking to one of my colleagues here in the physics department, and if they don't understand something I said they will interrupt me, they will ask questions because they have confidence that they should be able to follow what I'm talking about.
But if I do the same bad job talking to my next-door neighbor he won't interrupt and ask questions because he'll think he didn't follow it because he's not "smart enough." But if you tell the same story with Spider-Man or Superman, those insecurities shield don't come up or not as quickly.
And if you can tie it, the physics that you're talking about, into some sort of story or some narrative, there's a greater chance that people will actually call it and apply it. I discussed about the death of Gwen Stacy a little bit earlier and I talked about forces and momentum and changes in momentum but that's also, that is the same physics that underlies why we have airbags in our automobile.
You're going 60 miles an hour and you hit something and you come to rest. Now, how do you come to rest? You have to change your momentum by an external force being applied. And what the equation shows, what the Gwen Stacy example show is that the shorter the time available to change your motion the larger that force has to be.
And airbags like deforming under contact, they increase the time available to stop you than if your head was just to hit the steering column or the windshield. And that increase in time leads to a decrease in force. And a collision that would have been lethal now merely knocks you unconscious.
So people can see, "Oh, so, the same physics that doomed Gwen Stacy in Amazing Spider-Man number 121 saves our lives in automobile crashes." And when people can understand more about things around them, I think that that is ultimately a very positive result.
I don't believe that everyone needs to be a physicist or engineer. And nearly everyone who reads my books will not become scientists and engineers, but they all will be citizens and voters.
And as citizens and voters, we're called upon more and more to have opinions about scientific and technological issues, from climate change to genetically modified organisms, and vaccinations and nano-technology. And so the more that people can inform themselves on, I believe, they will be able to make better decisions.
JS: That's fantastic. Now you have a new book out now, one that's a little more grounded than superheroes and comic books. What is that one about?
JK: My new book, "The Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day," and it basically follows a you. You are in the story. As you wake up in the morning, when your smartphone alarm goes off and you tap the screen, and I talked about the physics of how that works.
You make breakfast, they explain the physics of a toaster. You drive in to the city. I talk about the E‑ZPass and physics GPS and your hybrid automobile. You go to a doctor's office or checkup, there's all sorts of technology you interact with. Then you have a very busy day. You go to the airport, you print out a ticket, touchscreen kiosk. You go to TSA security, and it all points when you encounter some technology, I explain the physics of how these things work.
You go and you give a business presentation in an LCD projector, the talk has been stored on a thumb drive. You, at the end of the day, check into a hotel, the motion sensors turn on the lights in a hallway. You watch a big screen TV, turn it off with remote control, go off to sleep, still wondering where those jetpacks I was promised.
But you are surrounded. We are surrounded with this technology that we just take for granted. And I want to try to… And it seems like magic, so much of it. And to a large extent, it is magic. It's not magic like Dr. Strange and the all-seeing Eye of Agamotto, but it is magic like a Penn & Teller Las Vegas magic show, where they don't break the laws of physics, they exploit the laws of physics to create amazing effects.
And the technology we have does the same thing. And so, I'm just kind of like one of those guys who tells you how the magic tricks are done. And tells you how your smartphone does what it does, and how the touchscreen works. Even 10, 20 years ago, this is just so amazing that this is so common now.
And it's just, and in some cases, it's using physics from the 19th century. So, I think it's all very cool and that's what I'm trying to explain to people because if they only think that physics is colliding black holes or the Higgs boson, they don't feel invested that it has any direct impact on their lives.
Colliding black holes and the Higgs boson are amazingly cool and awesome and deserve all those Nobel prizes but there's also a lot of awesome stuff under the hood in your smartphone, and it's fun to talk about that as well.
JS: Jim, thanks so much for joining me.
JK: Oh, thank you. It's been a pleasure. Thank you very much.
JS: Thanks to science, everyone today has superpowers that would have seemed impossible for most of human history. We can fly, we can communicate over vast distances, we can lift impossible heavy objects and move at mind-boggling speed. And we do it not by breaking the scientific laws that govern the universe, but by seeking to fully understand them.
Our challenge as scientists is to develop one more superpower, the ability to communicate complex ideas in simple language, to entertain while we inform. We can show the world just how heroic science can truly be. And we can do it thankfully without masks and skin-tight costumes.
Thank you for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at 3m.com/scienceindex. And make sure to subscribe to the podcast to catch our next episode! You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.