The Physics of Superheroes

28th April 2006 at 01:00
The Physics of Superheroes

By James Kakalios

Duckworth pound;9.99

At high school in Massachusetts in the 1970s, I often found myself on the geeks' table in the cafeteria, where the perpetual superhero symposium took place. I was merely an honorary geek, unable to hold my own with two future comics giants, Scott McCloud and Kurt Busiek, especially when passions flared over the physical plausibility of the powers of superheroes.

The best writers of superhero comics understand that a reader's suspension of disbelief demands a certain amount of internal consistency. They artfully conceal violations of the laws of physics and make the most of their adherence to the rules. Resorting to magic is bad form in the superhero genre.

James Kakalios, a physics professor, brings his scholarly knowledge of superhero comics to the table with this book. He rightly points out that the laws of physics in superhero comics are often more accurate than the layperson's untutored misconceptions.

Kakalios arrives at a deeper appreciation of the art of superhero comics by celebrating the folly and the triumph of their physics. The Flash battles against the laws of thermodynamics as often as he does against supervillains. Spiderman perpetually struggles with the hazards of the extreme forces caused by his reliance on elastic webbing. The diamagnetic properties of flesh and other materials actually make Magneto's electromagnetic talents more plausible than one might expect.

The book's only use of illustration is the comics themselves. Although these are well chosen, that decision does leave mathematical formulae unadorned and lacking visual interpretation. The Physics of Superheroes will find many fans and inspire physics teachers and students, but readers without a basic physics course under their belt will have to work harder to appreciate its finer points.

What a marvellous secret weapon this book would have been back in the school cafeteria - and it might have improved my B+ physics grade.

Ted Dewan is a former physics teacher and a creator of picture books

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