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.
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 .
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