Superhero Physics: An Interview with James Kakalios

We consider the physics of superheroes, namely the Avengers, with physics Professor James Kakalios in our special interview.

We are a generation who are obsessed with making our superheroes ‘more realistic’. From Kick Ass to Nolan’s Batman trilogy, Watchmen, X-Men and Spiderman; we seem to want to know how you can apply the science to the fiction. Roobla caught up with physics Professor James Kakalios; author of The Physics of Superheroes to seek the science behind Joss Whedon’s summer blockbuster Avengers Assemble…

Avengers Captain America 2012

As fans across the world prepared to watch their childhood comic book heroes Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye unite onscreen this summer, James Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Michigan, was definitely one of them. Analysing everything from Iron Man’s infamous suit to Nick Fury’s miraculous one-eyed sniping abilities, Kakalios was happy to give us a rundown of the scientific details behind this years biggest action movie.

In fact, it seems that comic book fan Kakalios has a unique super-power of his own; the gift to make the complex and confusing subject of physics pretty damn interesting. Especially when coupled with our favourite fictional characters.

His seminar ‘Everything I Learned About Physics I Learned By Reading Comic Books’ has become a popular class and received a lot of media attention in 2004 which eventually led to the publishing of his first book The Physics of Superheroes; in which Kakalios tackles Dr. Manhattan, the death of Gwen Stacy and The Atom as test subjects. The first equation to solve is how one jumps from teaching algorithms and quantum mechanics to steering big-name movie directors onto the path to scientific plausibility.

“You may be surprised to learn that most kids, would you believe, find physics dull,” said Kakalios.

“I had always been a fan of comic books as a child and I thought using heroes as an example to illustrate problems would be an interesting way to make sense of comics.”

“Most people wonder why they would ever need physics in every day life and this was a way to give unique example that hadn’t been done before… It seems a lot of my students lives after graduation obviously involve spandex.”

Kakalios followed up his success with The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics before becoming the go-to-guy for researching the scientific basis behind superhero movies; consulting Zack Snyders‘ team for Watchmen in 2009 and also for this year’s The Amazing Spider-man reboot. In many interviews, Kakalios points out that whilst many of the points he covers are not always actually explained in the movies, their semi-factual basis offers a deeper, second level where the viewer can believe the story.

“If it’s not possible, they can’t put it in the movies,” he maintains. Plus, you can imagine it probably makes the grilling by super-fans at Comic-Con a lot easier!

Starting with Iron Man, Kakalios begins by discussing Tony Stark’s greatest invention.

“Here we have an example of Tony Stark engineering a superhero and the superhero as an engineer,” says Kakalios.

“What’s great is that all the technology he uses already exists; we already have exo skeletons, armour plating and jet packs. What we’re missing is that power supply.”

Referring to Stark’s ‘makeshift’ electromagnetic arc reactor, Kakalios explains that the magical glowing blue hockey puck; which in Iron Man 2 is stated as being powered by a non-existent substance called palladium, contains the power of three nuclear power plants and is the miracle exemption as to why we currently live in an Iron Man-free world.

“We were promised by the year 2000 that we’d have jet packs and flying cars,” he says. “But a jet pack needs a huge energy supply. We need an enormous amount of energy to prolong that turbo thrust. We haven’t enough power to get from A to B, which is the whole point.”

Basically, even though the suit is something a few talented engineers could knock up, it wouldn’t work without that strong and consistent power supply.

Avengers Assemble Iron Man 2012

“If we look at the Teseract,” – that’s glowing blue square thing from Avengers Assemble, to most of us – “there are actual theories on negative energy being powerful enough to stabilise wormholes,” says Kakalios. The powerful and mystical cube of energy which Loki steals from S.H.I.E.L.D. Is supposedly a never-ending supply of a similar energy that powers Stark’s arc reactor but times by a million. Not only can it be a deadly weapon but it can open portals to the realm of Asgard. Many physicists have theorised that a wormhole to another part of space could be created if we had enough energy to stabilise it, yet as we know it, this type of energy does not yet exist.

“They aren’t trying to make anything accurate,” says James, “But they are creating a believable fake reality this way.”

So while we may be a long way from jetting off into the atmosphere, casually slipping into other dimensions or popping over to Italy just to pick up a pizza there are still more factual easter eggs to behold in the fantasy flick.

“Captain America,” begins Kakalios. “He’s got this shield that deflects bullets. It’s a perfect and unique alloy of steel and virbranium,” – which is an extra-terrestrial substance obtained from Wakanda, Africa that has the power to absorb shockwaves and vibrations. Oh and it’s totally fictional, of course.

Yet, why would brains working on the Captain America movie choose to make his iconic weapon from combination of the two metals? Surely, this is a minor detail which serves no importance and that nobody will really pay attention to?


“You would not want to only use Vibranium. It would be too squishy and the shield needs to bounce. You see Captain America using his shield to deflect Thor’s hammer and then throwing it and it flying back to him. An alloy with adamantium would provide that strength whilst still being light enough to throw.”

So how does it work?

“You have these shaking atoms which contain energy,” says Kakalios, describing how the shield can absorb such power. “You can’t destroy the energy but you can transform it. When Thor strikes the shield there is a tremendous force and I believe you see a glow. That means that the energy would be being transformed into light.”

Avengers Thor Chris Hemsworth 2012

Speaking of Thor, how can science explain a Norse god who can control thunder?

“When they created Thor, they made a conscious decision to make the science seem like magic. If you go back even 500 years with an iPad you would be considered a wizard,” explains Kakalios. “I would seem magical.”

Whilst opening portals to other realms is still, at present, the stuff of science fiction and theoretical debate, Thor’s other method of transportation is much more founded.

“Thor can not fly nor can he jump like Hulk but he is so strong that he can throw his hammer and be dragged like a projectile. If you think about it like the Olympics, you have the athletes throwing their hammer with their feet planted to the ground so they don’t go flying off,” he rationalises.

“But Thor is so strong that it doesn’t matter, because he is Thor,” he laughs.

Admittedly, Avengers Assemble is still very much rooted in fantasy. The flying fortress, Hulk’s rage-induced growth and teleportation are all the kinds of things which we, as an audience, accept as part of the narrative but can not even begin to comprehend in the world of equations and particles and other mind-boggling stuff. This is something that Kakalios is keen to point out:

“The thing is, the idea is always to create a fictional world where these things can seem possible. Any time the audience is thinking how bogus something is, is a moment where they aren’t paying attention to the story,” he says.

“That being said, it’s not like I go into a movie and think; Wow, my science sense is tingling!”

“What’s great about the Avengers is that they also have powers and capabilities that we can all have, which is why I think so many people relate to them,” adds Kakalios.

“For Captain America; it’s resource management. He’s there giving orders and everyone follows. For Black Widow, it’s manipulation. She even manages to out-trick Loki, the god of mischief.”

It’s a lot to take in, especially if you were never science-savvy in high school but this last point is certainly one that rings true to children and adults alike.

Finally, the only question left is a puzzling one which has left many scratching their heads for decades. Which Avenger is Kakalios’ personal favourite?

“Wow, that’s a tough question,” he says, laughing.

“In the movie I’d have to say Cap… and Iron Man… and the Hulk. All of the guys were great actually…”

We said choose one!

“I guess in the comic books I would have to say Ant-Man because what kid doesn’t fantasise about being half an inch tall.”

Well we haven’t long to wait for the sequel and Ant-Man hopefully will be bigger on-screen at least.

Want to know more cool science stuff about your favourite superheroes?
Professor James Kakalios’ books The Physics of Superheroes: Second Edition and The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics are both available at stores in the UK and online. You can also order from his site which has more information about Kakalios as well as some fun videos about his work .

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