REVIEW: The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Building off of his acclaimed university science course, James Kakaios uses superhero powers, trivia, and nerdy questions to explore the fantastic through the lens of science and physics.
PROS:Fun and light; never dwells on a single topic long enough to wear out its welcome; eases you into the science and the math; James Kakalios knows an awful lot about comics.
CONS: Easy or not, the math might put some people off.
BOTTOM LINE: A wealth of information about superheroes, science, and physics. A fantastic way to introduce someone to science who thinks they aren’t interested in the topic.
I bought my copy of The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios from a used bookshop years ago because I was a fan of superheroes and thought it would be interesting to examine them more closely. What surprised me, though, was how big an impact the book ended up having on me.
There have been quite a number of these types of books. I mean, The Physics of Superheroes has a foreword written by the author of The Physics of Star Trek. Just like there are six million books on The Philosophy of…(Harry Potter / Star Wars / Winnie the Pooh / Jenga), there are equal numbers of books coming at these same pop culture topics from a science standpoint.
What drew me to this one is particular is, it proposed to ask and then answer questions about superheroes that I already amused myself by asking. It has long seemed to me that you can tell increasingly interesting (and creative) stories about superheroes by realistically examining them and then going from there. Like Alan Moore did with Watchmen (“what if these sort of people existed in the real world, in the 1980′s?”), but on a more simple level. How strong, exactly, is Superman? How much thrust does he generate (I hear you, in the back, snickering. Stop that. This is a science book. SCIENCE.) when he flies? How fast is the Flash? What are the problems with running as fast as the Flash? Why or why not would Bizarro’s homeworld actually be a cube?
These are fun questions. What I wasn’t prepared for with the book — because I’m frequently an idiot, and the word “physics” in the title was apparently not enough of a tip-off — was that in an effort to answer these questions scientifically, James Kakalios would go into long and detailed, highly logical, extrapolations based on available evidence (i.e., the comics and films) and then resort to something I was not at all prepared to encounter….math.
Math — my old nemesis from my school years. Math which I hated with a passion, which I insisted I was no good at, math which I avoided. Math was the worst…
…except that it didn’t stop me reading this book in the slightest, and I hope it won’t deter you either. I kept on reading because (1) as with the logic and breakdowns, it’s all done in a very comfortable, very readable, funny fashion. The book doesn’t morph into a frightening school lecture on math, it feels like an affable friend explaining these things to you on a napkin while you’re having a meal. And (2) it isn’t hard. Not only is the math broken down bit by bit, the problems aren’t all that complicated. And besides there is (3) which is the fact that you can glaze over the math and keep on reading without major issue. So while flipping the pages and seeing the problems might intimidate, it shouldn’t.
The joyous moment for me, though, was when I was enjoying the topic enough to actually step through the math problems and discover, to my astonishment, that not only was Math not actually evil personified, but it was kind of fun, and I was pretty good at it. In a more difficult, less fun book, I’m not sure I would have made the effort and made that discovery.
The joy of the book is that even when it debunks heroes, powers, and their world, it does it without any scorn. It’s done for love of the superheroes, so it feels less like dissection and pedantic dismissal, and more like someone having fun.
(My favorite question was early on, and was extremely simple. As I already mentioned, in Superman comics, Bizarro’s world is a cube, simply because he’s opposite of Superman, and Superman’s Earth is a sphere. Would that actually work? No, the book points out. At that size, gravity and the spinning motion would cause it to take on a spherical shape. Hence why worlds and moons tend to be round, but asteroids don’t. It’s very simple, it’s probably a no-brainer, but I didn’t know it and it was a fantastic little fact.)
When I initially began seeing these The Physics of… books, my first assumption was that they were cash-in books, written just to milk a little money out of these big popular topics. This was a dumb and ill-informed opinion. On the contrary, what these books are is a very clever way of using pop culture topics as a launch-pad to introduce people to logical reasoning, the scientific process, physics, math, and science in general.
My life philosophy has, in recent years, become this: any topic you really hated in school, you should wait until you’re at least 25 (or older) and then try to revisit, make an effort to embrace. School, while invaluable for many things, can ruin some wonderful topics for kids, teenagers, and adults, and I think the best thing you can do is try to reclaim those topics. You might still hate them, but then again you might not.
Therefore, I put it to you that if you loved superheroes, love thinking about them, but weren’t that keen on science or maths, get yourself a copy of The Physics of Superheroes. It might surprise you. Even if it doesn’t, it will load you up on enough trivia to win any superhero argument. That’s worth the cover price alone, if you ask me.
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