5632 Can Superheroes Save the (Science) Day?

Saturday, February 18, 2012: 1:00 PM
Room 110 (VCC West Building)
Jim Kakalios , University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN
In the early 1950’s Congress held hearings to address concerns that comic books were leading children into juvenile delinquency, and the number of superhero comics decreased to roughly under ten from a high of 130 a decade earlier.  When comic book publishers began to reintroduce superhero titles in the late 1950’s, the storylines often involved positive portrayals of science and scientists.  This was likely due to the personal interests of the editors and writers at the time, a renewed emphasis on science education following the 1957 launching of Sputnik, and a desire to avoid any additional Congressional attention.

Although current sales of comic books are a fraction of what they were in the 1940’s and 1960’s, superheroes have assumed a pre-eminent position in popular culture, thanks to Hollywood.  The Spider-Man and Batman films have been box office blockbusters, and their hold on the public’s imagination shows no signs of weakening.  All of which provides another opportunity for science outreach.

In 2001 I created a 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 in particular, those cases where the superheroes get their physics right!  This class drew a great deal of media attention in 2002 with the release of the first Spider-Man film, and led to my writing a popular science book THE PHYSICS OF SUPERHEROES. 

Using superheroes to describe physics principles has provided many and varied opportunities for outreach and to discuss science with the general public. In 2007, in response to a request from the National Academy of Sciences, I served as the science consultant for the Warner Bros. superhero film Watchmen.  In 2009 I filmed a short video, posted on youtube.com, on The Science of Watchmen, which has been viewed over 1.7 million times, and won a regional EMMY award.  Through the National Academy’s Science and Entertainment Exchange, I’ve done additional consulting for Warner Bros. Green Lantern and Sony’s upcoming The Amazing Spider-Man.  In my presentation I will describe the various ways that the public’s interest in these four-color adventurers can be leveraged to present real science in an accessible way.  If superheroes can spark an interest in science in the general public – well, it wouldn’t be the first time these heroes have saved the day!