If you’ve ever found yourself shaken out of your suspended disbelief by the seemingly implausible actions of seemingly impossible superheroes, you’re not alone. There are several people in the same boat, but the most helpful of them is probably going to be Prof. James Kalakios, author of the book "The Physics of Superheroes." In this exclusive Made Man interview, he reveals a thing or two about the science that supports (or disintegrates) your childhood heroes.
Who is the most physically plausible super hero?
Well, I used to say: Batman, as he lacks any specific superpowers. But considering the number of times he has been knocked unconscious in his 60+ years of fighting crime, and managed to escape permanent brain damage, I suspect he has a hidden superpower, or at least some Homer Simpson extra-thick skull padding!
Actually, Iron Man seems to be the one hero closest to becoming reality. Exoskeleton suits which provide significant strength enhancement have been developed, we have personal jet packs, though they sadly only provide about a minute or so of lift, and there are cybernetic helmets being developed that would receive the electromagnetic waves resulting from mental commands and send them to a computer or the
exo-suit. What we need to make the comic book character a reality is a light weight high energy density power supply. It’s the least glamorous aspects that always trip us up!
Who is the least plausible and why?
Well, its hard to understand how exposure to yellow light, as opposed to red light, would endow even a strange visitor from another planet with super-speed, flight, super-strength, invulnerability, heat vision, telescopic vision, microscopic vision, super-breath, super-hearing, super-ventriloquism and super-hypnotism. Even with the recent suggestion that Superman’s powers actually involve an ability to control inertia (which follows the spirit of my book, in that it attempts to reduce the number of "miracle exceptions to the laws of nature" required for a super-power to work), it’s not clear how a shift of wavelength of light of only 80 nanometers accomplishes this.
Does dissecting the science (or lack thereof) behind these comics risk suspension of disbelief, or enhance the reading experience?
I don’t sit reading my stack of comics on Wednesdays with a pad of paper and a calculator, searching out errors. Rather, when I find something physically correct, its like catching an inside joke. It’s a kick to find something scientifically correct in a superhero comic book, and nowadays I’m doubly pleased as I can use it in my class!
What is the easiest way for, say, an editor living in Santa Monica to become a super human so as to better fight crime?
Do you have access to some toxic sludge at the shore that contains lethal radioactive isotopes? If so, then wallowing it it, while simultaneously being struck by lightning while being attacked by a wild animal, would be your best bet. Just make sure all your affairs are in order first!
What do you do when you’re not reading comic books?
By day I’m a mild mannered physics professor at a great metropolitan university. My research spans the Nano to the Neuro. I work on amorphous/nanocrystalline semiconductors for solar cell applications, and my studies of noise in disordered semiconductors have recently extended to studying voltage fluctuations in the brain, in collaboration with professors in Neuroscience. I teach, and also hold administrative jobs within the physics dept. at the University of Minnesota. But there’s always time for comic books!
How long have you been interested in the science of superheroes?
Well, as a kid my favorite superhero characters were those who combined cool powers with intelligence. The Flash, for example, could run super-fast, but he used his speed in novel and scientifically accurate ways to foil his Rogue’s Gallery. Similarly, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four would use his scientific genius to beat Dr. Doom or the Mole Man. These comics stressed being intelligent, and served as great role models for budding scientists (as well as providing crucial fashion tips).
What are some of the more interesting findings from your study of Superheroes to entice readers to buy the whole book?
I have a new chapter on fluid mechanics and Aquaman, where I demonstrate that any character who can survive on the ocean’s floor is tough enough to gain our respect, regardless of whether he talks to fishes or not! I also explain that Aquaman breathing through water isn’t that hard to accept, since we breath through water as well! A chapter on Materials Science discusses Wolverine’s claws, the Fantastic Four’s uniforms (what are ‘unstable molecules’ anyway?), Wonder Woman’s bracelets and the chemical composition of Captain America’s shield. Every chapter has been revised, some extensively, and mathematical analysis proves that the jokes are now 12.7% cornier!
Okay. Cage match: everybody against everybody. Which superhero wins in a fight and how?
Time travel, FTW! Go into the future, see who winds, and get a bet down, so that even if you lose, you win (which is probably why so few characters have temporal superpowers)! Other than that, if you can move faster than thoughts can travel in the brain (nothing happens in your mind quicker than a millisecond or so), then you can take out your adversaries before they realize they are in a fight!
For more information on the science behind your favorte superheroes, by Prof. Kalakios’ latest work, "The Physics of Superheroes." [Buy it]