Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Scientist to reveal secrets of super heroes

Have you ever wondered how strong you would have to be to leap a tall building in a single bound? Was it the fall or the webbing that killed Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy? How does Kitty Pryde from the X-Men use quantum mechanics to walk through walls?

All these questions and more will be addressed in an Emory lecture by James Kakalios, a physics professor from the University of Minnesota and the author of “The Physics of Super Heroes.” The free talk, sponsored by the physics department, will be held Sept. 24, in White Hall 208 at 3 p.m.

“I get a lot of requests to give this talk,” Kakalios told eScienceCommons. “But with my daughter here, Emory’s request moved to the top of the line.” (Laura Kakalios is an Emory sophomore, majoring in neuroscience and economics.)

The following Q&A offers a taste of what’s to come on Friday.

eScienceCommons: How long have you been reading super-hero comics?

James Kakalios: I read them as a kid growing up in the 60s. I gave them up in high school when I discovered girls, but I picked up the hobby again in graduate school, and I’ve continued it ever since. My favorites are the Flash and the Fantastic Four. Both of these have leading characters that are scientists.

eSC: If you could have any super power, what would it be?

JK: I wish I had super speed. But writing the book, I realized all sorts of other things I would have to specify for the genie to grant this wish. I would need to be able to sustain super accelerations and ignore air drag. And if you’re running at super speed, moving electrical charges create enormous magnetic fields, so you’d be pulling after you every piece of metal not nailed down, and some that were.

eSC: Have you performed any super-human feats lately?

JK: Just last week I picked up an object that was going 600 miles per hour.

eSC: Really?

JK: Yes, I poured myself some ginger ale while traveling in an airplane. That’s the same principle of relative velocities that allows the Flash to pluck bullets out of the air.

eSC: Do you worry that comic-book analogies dumb down the subject of science?

JK: No, I worry that physics is not accessible enough to the general public. When you tie a scientific principle into a Spider-man story line it helps people remember it. We are being called on more and more as citizens and voters to have opinions about scientific topics. Basic physics can be a useful thing to help understand everything from stem cells to climate change and alternative energy.

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