Monday, March 10, 2008

Book Review: The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios

Many of the services and products we use today as individuals and as organizations depend on technology that we rarely think about and sometimes don’t understand. Some of the established utility services like water, sewer, electricity and gas have become so transparent that they are almost invisible except to those who work in the industries or when something fails. We don’t advocate that everyone should become a physicist, but we do think people should become informed consumers of the products and services they use, especially in their own homes. Books like this can help people develop a better understanding of just what it takes to make our lifestyles possible.

Kakalios, J. The Physics of Superheroes. New York: Gotham Books, 2005.

The Physics of Superheroes is a fun introduction to physics. Kakalios is a physics professor at the University of Minnesota, and childhood comic book fan, who created a freshman physics class that used examples from comic books to illustrate physics principles rather than traditional examples.

This book is not a physics textbook. For one thing, it is very light on math. Calculus was a prerequisite to the physics classes I took in college, but you can follow this book with no more math than a high school student would know. If higher math is necessary for a thorough understanding, Kakalios provides a general concept and moves on. This is a book for the nonspecialist.

Though written for a nontechnical audience, the book covers the range of physics you would find in an undergraduate physics curriculum. It moves from classical mechanics to thermodynamics to quantum mechanics. It demonstrates how seemingly esoteric and strange physical phenomena, particularly in the realm of quantum mechanics, make possible the technology that is all around us.

What makes the book entertaining is the use of comic books as sources of illustrations. Much of what is in comics is more fantasy than physics. Kakalios allows a “miracle exception” to explain the superheroes’ powers, but from their examines their feats form the point of view of solid science. Sometimes the comics get the science right.

Judging from the tone of the book, it seems that Kakalios has an affection for comic books. Though the main subject is physics, a secondary subject is the history of comics and some of their major characters. The comics fan will find something to enjoy as well as those seeking an approachable introduction to physics. Maybe it can bridge the gap between those with the button down collars and those in the Black Adam tee shirts.

This book shares something with more academic texts, namely footnotes. Kakalios’ footnotes deal more with the comics than the physics; he deals with the physics in the main text, but sometimes an explanatory note about the comics’ characters is helpful to the uninitiated. Some footnotes are tongue-in-cheek comments that lighten the tone of the more serious segments.

The Physics of Superheroes

This review originally appeared here at Infra Consulting LC.

No comments:

Post a Comment