The Physics and Materials Science of Superheroes

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Kakalios, James
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In 2001 James Kakalios created a Freshman Seminar class at the University of Minnesota entitled: "Everything I Know About Science I Learned from Reading Comic Books." This is a real physics class, that covers topics from Isaac Newton to the transistor, but there’s not an inclined plane or pulley in sight. Rather, ALL the examples come from superhero comic books, and as much as possible, those cases where the superheroes get their physics right! While physicists, engineers and materials scientists don’t typically consult comic books when selecting research topics; innovations first introduced in superhero adventures as fiction can sometimes find their way off the comic book page and into reality. As amazing as the Fantastic Four’s powers is the fact that their costumes are undamaged when the Human Torch flames on or Mr. Fantastic stretches his elastic body. In shape memory materials, an external force or torque induces a structural change that is reversed upon warming, a feature appreciated by Mr. Fantastic. Spider-Man’s wall crawling ability has been ascribed to the same van der Waals attractive force that gecko lizards employ through the millions of microscopic hairs on their toes. Scientists have developed “gecko tape,” consisting of arrays of fibers that provide a strong enough attraction to support a modest weight (if this product ever becomes commercially available, I for one will never wait for the elevator again!). All this, and important topics such as: was it “the fall” or “the webbing” that killed Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man’s girlfriend in the classic Amazing Spider-Man # 121, how graphene saved Iron Man’s life and the chemical composition of Captain America’s shield, will be discussed. Superhero comic books often get their science right more often than one would expect!
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62:00 minutes
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