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The Physics of Superheroes 201

peterwayner writes "There are few corners of the world that are more closely associated with the word "nerd" than comic books and physics. Despite the large overlap in the fan base, the two disciplines seem doomed to live forever in different corners of our minds. Superheroes don't have to obey the laws of physics and that's probably what makes them so attractive to the poor physicists who labor long and hard in the hope of making those laws work correctly. James Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota, has produced a book, "The Physics of Superheroes" (now in paperback). The surprise is that the two don't behave like matter and anti-matter. They don't explode on contact." Read the rest of Peter's review.
The Physics of Superheroes
author James Kakilios
pages 340
publisher Gotham Books
rating 9
reviewer Peter Wayner
ISBN 1-59240242-9
summary Why superman isn't as far fetched as it may seem.

There's no reason to spoil the book. You'll have to read it if you want to know why Superman can't change history, how Magneto becomes Electro when he runs, and whether Spiderman could really do those amazing things with spider silk. Some of the chapters are devoted to celebrating the accuracy of the comic strips by working through the physical equations. Much of what the comic book writers imagined is actually pretty reasonable. These sections bring new discipline to those old debates over who's stronger, bigger or most capable.

Other sections spell out just how wrong some of the assumptions are. Even when he's deflating the hopes of those kids who wish they could fly like Superman, he uses the disconnection with reality as a chance to riff on some what-if questions. What if Superman came from a planet that had a gravitational field 15 times stronger than earth? Would he be able to leap tall buildings? And then what would happen to a planet that was 15 times denser than earth? Would it fly apart as it rotated? Could you build one by just making a bigger version of Earth? What if you put some superdense material in the center of your new Earth? These are the questions that Kakalios works through.

The core theorem or narrative device of the book (choose your point of view) is that comic book authors can't bend too many rules. In fact, they usually can't get away with breaking more one or two. Then the hero must live a conventional life in our world and that's what makes it interesting. Spiderman may have a superstrong webbing, but he's still as vulnerable to depression as the next man. Batman may have unlimited wealth, but that won't bring back his parents. To paraphrase Robert Frost, comic book authors aren't playing tennis without a net.

In this world, science and comic narrative aren't bizarro versions of each other. Stories are sort of like free-form experiments where the scientist tries to change just one thing and measure the results. From this viewpoint, there's little difference between the two disciplines. A comic book is just a shorthand version of a scientific experiment.

This link implies an interesting and perhaps dangerous notion: science is just a longhand version of comic books. Sure, the folks at the cell phone companies have been striving mightily to make real that button on James T. Kirk's chest. That's the good news. But what about the darker notions? Anyone who's dealt with the side-effects of supposedly safe drugs like Vioxx knows that the bench scientists are as constrained as the comic book authors. They've got to come up with research that satisfies their customers and provide a simple resolution before that customer loses interest. (And won't those scientists come up with an ending for the debate about the link between cell phone-brain cancer before a jury does?)

But such speculation may kill the fun in the book. It's really just an excuse to toss around some equations and ask "what if" with a bit more rigor. This book may not be a grand, unifying theorem for the big plots of comic books and the big theories of science, but it's a neat first cut. It's as fascinating as much for its nuts and bolts description of physics as its offhand way of mixing together mathematical frameworks with narrative understanding.

Bio: Peter Wayner is the author of 13 books like Translucent Databases and Disappearing Cryptography .

You can purchase The Physics of Superheroes from Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.
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The Physics of Superheroes

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  • by Stone Rhino ( 532581 ) <> on Monday September 11, 2006 @04:18PM (#16084015) Homepage Journal
    I'd like to see what one of these explanations are, so I can actually evaluate his reasoning. The lack of a sample leaves this review with a big gaping hole of no examples to support its conclusions.
    • by surfcow ( 169572 )
      Go to You can view a good chunck of the book on-line.

      At a quick glance, it looks good, the author seems to have a good grasp of physics.
    • I've got the book, and it is amusing, though not so much for the advanced student. Usually it's more along the lines of taking bad physics, and explaining why it's bad.

      From memory (so take with a grain of salt), I can remember an example dealing with a little known superhero named "Ant Man" who, obviously could become super small (or was always super small?), and yet had strength and inertia comperable to a full grown man...Wonder why he didn't catch on?

      There was another one...I believe it was some villian
  • by Paul Rose ( 771894 ) on Monday September 11, 2006 @04:19PM (#16084030)
    Always got a chuckle out of "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" by Niven. []
    • by Xtifr ( 1323 )
      Yup, definitely a classic, and the first thing I thought of, too. One of my favorite lines: "Meanwhile, tens of millions of sperm swarm in the air over Metropolis."

      Larry Niven's mind seems to be capable of going places I would tend to avoid, at all costs! :)
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by szembek ( 948327 )
      Lois could never have superman's baby. Do you think her fallopian tubes could handle his sperm ? I guarantee he blows a load like a shotgun right through her back. What about her womb ? You think it's strong enough to carry his child ? Sure. Why not ? He's an alien, for christ's sake ! His kryptonian biological makeup is enhanced by earth's yellow sun. If lois gets a tan, the kid could kick right through her stomach. Only someone like wonder woman has a strong-enough uterus to carry his kid. Only way he c
  • I'm hoping it finally explains just how Batman came to be...obviously this would have more to do with genetics, but I'd really love to see them explain a half-bat/half-man running around a poorly disguised version of 1970s NYC.'s a costume you say? -looks crestfallen-
  • Kirk's chest (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 11, 2006 @04:20PM (#16084040)
    IIRC, Kirk didn't have a communicator on his chest, that was Picard.
  • by smallferret ( 946526 ) on Monday September 11, 2006 @04:25PM (#16084097)
    The author was interviewed on NPR's Science Friday last year. They talk about some specific examples from the book, and it's an entertaining interview. Id=4851397 []
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      In addition, Dr. Kakalios is quite friendly to people who email him about the book. I had a question about one of his equations, and emailed him about it, and he sent me a very nice reply.

  • The Physics Course (Score:4, Informative)

    by Tobor The Fowl ( 844643 ) on Monday September 11, 2006 @04:27PM (#16084117)
    This isn't a what if... A very good friend of mine went to the University of Minnesota and took a course with this professor with this book as the text for the class. He told me that they figure out some neat things.

    They calculate the outrageous amount of food that Superman needs to eat on a daily basis. They use different examples to figure out what Spider-Man's web can and can't do and go so far as to calculate the tensile strength of a fresh web.

    He told me lots of other neat examples that I can't even recall right now. I've been told that it's a great book and a great course.
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      Well, a while ago (80s?) they mentioned that Superman was essentially a large Solar battery. That he absorbed the energy from the rays of the yellow sun and stored them. When he's "running low" he's more vulnerable to cuts, has less strength, etc. Likewise his invulnerability is from an aura his body projects (powered by the solar battery).

      They tried doing something similar with "The Flash," where-as he pulls power from something called the "Speed Force." This is also why he doesn't leave massive crater
      • > They tried doing something similar with "The Flash," where-as he pulls power from something
        > called the "Speed Force." This is also why he doesn't leave massive craters as he runs.

        Wally West at one point also had to eat outragous amount of food to make of for the energy he spend.
  • But what about the Physics of whether Superman could beat Darth Vader in a fight?
    • by TheAmazingJambi ( 998707 ) on Monday September 11, 2006 @04:38PM (#16084221)
      The old badass Darth Vader or Vader Lite aka Hayden Christensen?
    • by PriceIke ( 751512 ) on Monday September 11, 2006 @04:58PM (#16084414)
      Why stop there? []
    • "You can run, Vader, but I'll get you! You can't hide behind that red sun forever!


    • by mark-t ( 151149 )
      The "Force" in spite of a connection to midichlorians that exist in all life, is effectively supernatural in origin and therefore magic. Superman is vulnerable to magic. Therefore, Darth Vader would win.
    • Neither. Jay and Silent Bob would kick both of their asses. :)
  • by Corbets ( 169101 ) on Monday September 11, 2006 @04:31PM (#16084163) Homepage
    Am I the only one who instinctively read this summary with a voice in my head that sounded like the Simpsons Comic Book Guy???
  • Physics (Score:4, Interesting)

    by SamSim ( 630795 ) on Monday September 11, 2006 @04:38PM (#16084217) Homepage Journal
    I would be interested to see an actual physical simulation of Spider-Man style webslinging, to see if you could actually get around New York (or anywhere) by swinging from building to building. My theory? He should crash into walls all the time.
    • Perhaps if they factored in his college diet of Taco Bell into the equation, they might come to a different conclusion, if you get the thrust of my argument..
    • by dmatos ( 232892 )
      I suspect that he would run out of buildings tall enough to use before he crashed into them. I can see arcing back and forth across a street as a plausible mode of transport, but really, how many blocks can you go before you're out in the 3 and 4 storey buildings?

      (caveat - I've never been to New York, but in Toronto you'd be able to go about three city blocks, straight up Bay Street, and nowhere else).
      • by eonlabs ( 921625 )
        I don't know about Chicago, but if you're referring to the comics then that would be the place to be. NYC on the other hand has dozens of blocks of sky scrapers, with hundreds of blocks of 3-4 story sky line. I don't see how that is an issue considering that 40+ feet of fall room still provides a decent area for swinging. (20 if you need to avoid telephone wire)
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Rude Turnip ( 49495 )
      Pop in Spider-man 2 for PS2 or XBox and try it out for yourself :)
      • by Fry-kun ( 619632 )
        Or just watch the Spider-Man (2002) []
        In one of the scenes, when Parker is trying slinging between buildings for the first time, he does indeed crash into a wall. After that, he always avoids crashing by shooting his web at a building on the other side of the street, or even using two webs to begin with.

        It's more interesting to think about what happens to the webs after he's done with them. It seems he just leaves them around the city, clinging on buildings or wherever he used them. And this is a large amount
  • I find it hard to believe the geek cred of this reviewer when he repeatedly refers to "Spider-Man" as "Spiderman". Lonely virgins everywhere know that it is hyphenated!

    [/comic book guy]
  • I always just assumed Superman had a huge field around him that slightly pulled energy from yellow light and created a teeny tiny redshift for hundreds of miles around. It explained why a yellow sun was needed and why Krypton didn't provide super powers
  • just like it has no place in movies that aren't documentaries about physics. This book is just as bad sounding as the website Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics []. Maybe i am the minority here, but i think entertainment shouldn't be subjected to scrutinty like this. Who cares if spidermans web is not able to do what it does in the comic. Whoever referenced the superman vs darth vader is right, those are the important questions (Like who would win in a fight Neo or Gandalf) not, what are the physics of sup
  • This is a long-time debate that I have had; Who is better?

    Mighty Mouse or Superman

    Ofcourse it was only a one-sided debate, as I am an only child.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by The Fun Guy ( 21791 )
      Boy, you don't know nothing!

      Mighty Mouse is a cartoon.

      Superman is a real guy. No way a cartoon could beat up a real guy.
  • My favorite comic doesn't violate the laws of physics.
  • For whatever reason I'm able to suspend disblief when it comes to radioactive spiders, glowing meteorites, and even some of the more ridiculous time travel (flying around the world really fast?!?!). These all deal with things that are so far outside of my daily life experience that they seem "fantastic" rather than merely inaccurate and sloppy.

    The real problem I have is the "super strength" type characters, and how they interact with the rest of the physical world. I'm down with super strength, that's a
    • They actually tried explaining this with the latest Superboy (who was a half-clone of Superman) by saying he has "tactile telekenisis." Basically the objects that Supes picks up are encompassed by this, and don't become susceptible to structural failure. It's lousy ret-conning, I know :) but the new Superboy actually has this ability, but a bit more enhanced. He can pick up an object, and also tear it apart/manipulate it.
      • Oh man, nerd time for me.
        1) Kon-El, the latest Superboy is now dead. His powers were not based on Superman's, but rather designed (by Luthor) in imitation. Thus, while Kon-El had tactile telekinesis, Superman does not.
        2) Kon-El is also dead, courtesy of Superboy Prime (who is imprisoned inside a red son, after having not only killed a ton of people, but acutally altered the reality of DC comics by punching the walls of heaven...seriously...).

    • This reminds me of a division in science fiction: Hard science fiction vs soft science fiction.

      Hard science fiction autors never violate the laws of physics. Just play with future but very possible technology, or dwelve in the realms of life inside stars and so on.

      Soft science fiction violates whatever law it wants, just for story-telling sake. Think warp speeds.

      Some autors are definitely hard science writers, when others are not.

      The point is: hard science fiction is more difficult to write. You must have
  • It's a good book (Score:2, Informative)

    by Tyfud ( 777617 )
    I've got it and have started reading it. A friend bought it for me last Christmas. As an avid fan of both comic books and Physics, it warms my heart to read how the author approaches each situation. That's with a very science first outlook. Essentially he's using comic books and super hero's to replace the common examples of "Man throws a 12kg ball over a cliff at 12,000meters, how much force will the ball have with the ground if F=ma". Just change ball to superman, and cliff to building, and man throwing t
  • Which superheroes? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by BearRanger ( 945122 ) on Monday September 11, 2006 @05:35PM (#16084707)
    Any geek who has read comics for any length of time knows that the superheroes of today are *much* less powerful than they were 40 - 50 years ago. I doubt if the laws of physics have changed. Perhaps the shift has been with writers finally understanding that they can only push the boundaries of reality so far.

    A Superman who can push the Earth out of its orbit isn't fun for a writer to work with, any more than it is for reader above the age of 5 to enjoy.

    A specific incident that comes to mind, probably from the late '80's. I believe it was "Legion of Superheroes" #38, where the writer (Paul Levitz?) had Mon-El deliver a white dwarf star to Earth, as part of a complex plot, to act as a power source for one of Brainiac 5's experiments. The resulting letters page a few issues later completely humbled the writer, with the readers taking him to task for violating the many laws of physics that would have resulted in the Earth's complete destruction. Some readers went into great detail about where the author went wrong, and Levitz actually apologized.

    Writers have to be more careful because their readers routinely take them to task when they go too far.
    • > A Superman who can push the Earth out of its orbit isn't fun for a writer to work with, any
      > more than it is for reader above the age of 5 to enjoy.

      Peter David's Supergirl did meet the silver age Supergirl in his last arch. The silver age Supergirl was standing on her hands, and explaining that she was trying to push Earth away from an approaching comet. The modern Supergirl correctly pointed out that it didn't work (it was her world, and her laws of physics), and that even if it had worked, the c
    • Superman doesn't routinely push planets around anymore, but even trying to lift a large building should result in a pile of rubble, not an intact building. I'd guess that Superman hasn't really obeyed the laws of physics since the 30's when he couldn't even fly.
  • "There are few corners of the world that are more closely associated with the word "nerd" than comic books and physics."
    Apparently, you haven't checked out the discussion over here [].
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 11, 2006 @08:39PM (#16085815)
    Now, I don't know how many of you dogs of the scurviest sea read comics, but I do a big pile of comics. One thing that blows my mind is how completely insane the powers in the DC universe are. Look at Superman. This guy has more powers than French restaurants have ways to say "your taste in wine is atrocious". He has powers to do with every part of his body and then some. He forgets powers sometimes. He can shoot heat rays out of his eyes, frost breath from his mouth and red son radiation from his ass. He's that sort of crazy dude. All because he absorbs solar radiation.

    Look at Batman. His power? The anti-power. Sure, he should be some tame, kung fun master of not much, but instead he's the hottest shit to ever shit on a plate. You got a power? He'll find your weakness and give you seizures or heart attacks. He'll light you on fire when you're sleeping or make you recharge your green lantern ring in the power outlet. Ten thousand volts of fuck you batman. That's Batman.

    But the fucking Flash, my god, my FUCKING GOD, this man has the greatest powers of all. If Superman's powers are being sucked off by twin super models and batman coming home to discover your wife is not only bisexual but has two friends she wants you to 'get in on' then the Flash is an orgy with a thousand women who also want to pay your World of Warcraft billing. And click the mouse for you. This man is just that fucking hot. They have to power him down in the comics half the time just to keep him from doing everyone else's job.

    Ok first off, he can travel at lightspeed. Mother fuck! Not only does he travel at lightspeed, but time slows down for him. So he feels like he's having a casual jog or reading the paper, meanwhile, his feet are moving so fast you can hear him coming from Montana while he's already gotten to Arizona. That's fucking fast. But wait! The ability to move at Lightspeed just isn't fucking enough!

    I know! Christ this guy can punch you so many times in a second you've been hit five times in the cock and two times everywhere else. You think you're about to fight the Flash and then it hits you, for the last split second he's beaned your beanbags with more blows than you had sperm. But no, there's more!

    The Flash can also vibrate through walls. Now last I heard, you can not move so fast you can vibrate through walls, so what actually happens is the Flash is so fast he can pick and choose the movement of his individual molecules and move them through other solid objects, phasing through solid matter like it ain't no thing. I mean you think a guy who runs at lightspeed would run into shit but no, the Flash just goes right through them. To top that with a cherry and some whipped cream (which the Flash made in like a millisecond, fucker) he can selectively choose to cause objects to be "okay" afterwards or FUCKING EXPLODE. That's right. He can run through you and make you blow up by transfering kinetic energy into you. Like Jesus. IT's bad enough you can't hit this guy, but he doesn't even have to punch you. Now your testicles have exploded and you're thinking you're about to hit him. Jesus? Just give it up. He's the fucking Flash.

    Now imagine that somehow there's someone who can get around the Flash blowing your balls up secret ninja technique. Ok. He can also control the flow of energy between objects. This power makes no sense but basically he can throw a rock at you, and you think it's going slow and then he's like WHOOHOOO WIZARDLY FLASH POWERS and bam it's going at lightspeed. So he can throw seven million rocks at you in a second then make them all goes different speeds thus striking your nads with seven million rocks one after the other.

    But wait! There's more! He can also take energy from the very power of speed and make clothes out of it. Yes. Flash makes his pants out of GOES FAST. The man is so fast he can make Flash pants that GOES FAST go right into. I don't even start to understand the physics of that but basically SPEED == REALLY TIGHT UNDERWEAR AND COOL LIGHTNING THINGIES OVER T
  • I took Dr. Kakalios's Solid State Physics course back in my college days. I even managed to stay awake during class (a high honor, as I slept through most of my college courses). I also had the pleasure of working with him indirectly as part of a summer research program. So, if there are any UMN physics students out there, definitely take one of his courses.
  • I've read the book and have been to his seminar twice. He's a very entertaining guy and a true geek. He makes me want to go back to school and be a physics major. I would reccomend the book for anybody interested in math, physics, comics or any combination of the above. Also, I would reccomend his seminar for anybody in the Twin Cities.
  • I remember seeing a similar monologue on the physics of Santa. You start with basic facts like the number of children in the world, the proportion that are Christian, the average size/weight of each gift, etc. and deduce how big the sleigh would have to be ... you fold in how fast the whole outfit would need to travel in order to deliver everything in one night ... and you end up deducing that Santa would explode or something like that. IANAP, obviously, but it was pretty funny.

    No mod points at the mom

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