The Physics of Superheroes


James Kakalios' book, The Physics of Superheroes

By Michael Younkin, Commentary Editor

  Professor James Kakalios gave a fascinating presentation on the times that the comic books actually got their physics right on Saturday, March 12 at Towson University.

  Kakalios attained fame when he wrote a brief commentary for his local newspaper in Minnesota on the death of Gwen Stacy when The Amazing Spiderman 2 came out. He explained that her death was a beautiful display of Sir Isaac Newton’s first law: An object in motion will remain in motion unless an outside force is acted upon it. From this article, he received a massive amount of attention, and so he wrote more, and eventually wrote his book, The Physics of Superheroes.

  In his presentation, he discussed, briefly, his original article, but then went on to discuss many more times that the comics got it right, going all the way back to when comic books were first becoming a thing in Action Comics and other assorted comic books.

  One of my personal favorites was his brief discussion of the Flash’s infinite mass punch. He said that this infinite mass punch was indeed physically correct, as it is backed by Einstein’s theory of relativity. He also discussed Spiderman’s webbing and ability to stick to walls, both of which are major goals for scientists to achieve.

  A spider’s webbing is proportionally stronger than steel, and a strand that Spiderman shoots out does indeed have the ability to hold him with it’s thickness. He also discussed a new product that scientists are trying to make: Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs).

  CNT’s are 200 times stronger than steel, and the ability to develop them would actually give us the ability to create Spiderman’s webbing, though some fool would probably kill himself trying to swing from it. Regardless, it was a fascinating concept.

  At the same time, he also discussed his ability to stick to walls. He said that if his ability is similar to that of a gecko’s, he is actually using Van der Waal’s force, which is the transferring of electrons. You can observe this by rubbing a balloon on your head and sticking it to a wall. It sticks there, but, you’ll notice, it doesn’t seem very strong. The way the gecko and Spiderman counteract this is by having billions of tiny hairs that all transfer electrons back and forth, holding it to the wall.

  This area has recently had the breakthrough known as gecko tape, which synthesizes this ability.

  James Kakalios did a beautiful job with his presentation, and to see more of his ideas, check out his book. Professor Kakalios makes everyone realize that even in the most outlandish of tales, sometimes there is a ring of truth.