Thursday, December 01, 2005

Physics for Poets and ... Superheroes

Back in the day, I taught a new college course called Physics for Poets aimed at students who had an interest in physics but not the mathematics background or, more commonly, needed another science elective and thought (hoped) it might be an easy course. The course was named after a new text by Robert March with a refreshing attitude: “To ask a layman to study mathematics merely to appreciate physics is as unreasonable as asking him to study Italian merely to properly appreciate Dante.” While none of the students missed the mathematics the professor found its absence to be an extra challenge.

I so enjoyed the first semester that I volunteered to teach it several more times. It was a real thrill to see a student with an expression that said “Oh, so that’s how it works. Neat!” We had lots of fun and some seriously funny experiences. One such was when my wife decided to take the course and we made the unwise decision to keep her identity a secret. But that’s a story for another post.

Today I’d like to discuss a new book The Physics of Superheroes by James Kakalios. The book is used by the Prof in his course (at U. Minnesota) called Everything I Know About Science I Learned from Reading Comic Books. Like the Poets course, Kakalios eschewed the math and he also eliminated the boring examples like masses on springs and blocks sliding down inclined planes. Instead, all of the examples came from the “four-color adventures of costumed superheroes, and focused in particular on those situations where the comic books got their physics right.”

Kakalios came up with the idea when he overheard a student griping about the traditional physics course that he was required to take. “I’m going to bleeping buy low, and bleeping sell high. I don’t need to know about no bleeping balls thrown off no bleeping cliffs.”

The prof says he "concluded two things from this statement: (1) the secret to financial success and (2) that the examples used in traditional physics classes strike many students as divorced from their everyday concerns."

The Physics of Superheroes has no such problem

For example, the chapter on quantum mechanics explores the “Flash of Two Worlds” story by Gardner Fox. In that classic story it was revealed that the two Flash superheroes, the Silver Age Flash and the Golden Age Flash, lived on “parallel Earths” separated by a “vibrational barrier.” In this tale, the SAF accidentally vibrated at the precise (resonant) frequency that caused him to cross over to the other Earth where the GAF lived. Upon meeting the GAF, our SAF noted: “As you know, two objects can occupy the same space and time if they vibrate at different frequencies.”

Interesting thought, but SAF doesn’t get the physics right on this point. Nonetheless, the two superheroes have a great time, save both Earths innumerable times and the students never wonder when they will use this information in real life.

I found it interesting that Kakalios concludes that the concept of parallel worlds may be one of the strangest examples of comic books getting their physics right. Some scientists believe that the concept of an infinite number of parallel universes, each with (slightly) different laws of physics, could explain the remarkable fine tuning of our actual universe without relying on a Creator. But that’s a story for another post.

The motivation for my science posts is the same as Prof. Kakalios: “I hope you will be so busy enjoying this superhero ice cream sundae that you won’t realize that I am sneakily getting you to eat your spinach at the same time.” We shall see.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do tell the story of Lee's secret student life!


8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the subject of Physics, i.e. Quantum Physics — maybe they are two different concepts, but anyway…

Some time ago we saw a move called “What in the Bleep Do We Know”. A friend had recommended that we see it, so we drove all the way to an art theatre in Old Pasadena in the pouring rain. The audience was limited to a few young students maybe from Cal Tech. As a liberal arts major, I thought the film was educational—maybe you have seen it? If not, check it out—I think we have it in the library!


5:27 PM  
Blogger Bill Lama said...

The movie sounds like something about Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist from CalTech who wrote books about his curious life called "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" and "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" Feynman is one of my heroes. I must see the movie.


5:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, so thats it, you're from a different world and vibration.

That makes it clear why your ideas are so weird sometimes.

The Prez

7:35 PM  

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