Packing a ‘super’ punch

Photo by Greg St. Martin.

Over the years, superhero stories have delighted millions of fans through movies, television shows and comic books. But these tales can also teach us a lesson in physics, according to physics professor and author James Kakalios.

In a lecture on Sunday to about 400 people who packed Northeastern’s Blackman Auditorium, the University of Minnesota professor explored the death of Gwen Stacy, a character in a 1973 Spider-Man comic who meets her end in a fall from a tall bridge.

Many fans have questioned whether she actually died from the fall itself, or from Spider-Man’s webbing, which caught her fall. Kakalios, who sported a Spider-Man tie, settled the debate.

By calculating Stacy’s downward speed and the force needed to stop her fall in a half-second, he concluded that the superhero’s webbing was indeed the culprit after her body snapped upon impact.

The science, he said, relates to the reason why vehicles have air-bags. “The same physics that saves our lives in automobile crashes was responsible for the death of Gwen Stacy,” said Kakalios, a science consultant on both the 2009 film “Watchmen” and the latest Spider-Man film slated for a summer release.

He described how the strength and elasticity of real spider silk makes it conceivable that the superhero could stop a speeding train like he did in director Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2.”

Kakalios said the principals of science could also be applied to explain why Wonder Woman can deflect bullets with her metal bracelets and how Fantastic Four characters’ costumes function in order to enable their special powers.

The lecture was cosponsored by the College of Science and the American Physical Society (APS), and was held in advance of the APS’s annual March Meeting in Boston this week. The event has drawn thousands of researchers, including many from Northeastern, who will participate in talks, presentations and poster sessions at the five-day gathering.

Swastik Kar, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics, is among the Northeastern faculty members whose work will be on display at the annual meeting. For one presentation, Kar’s post-doctoral researcher Xiaohong An will showcase a technique for synthesizing graphene – a strong, thin, single-atom thick material – both quickly and on a large scale on the metallic surface of palladium.

“It is extremely beneficial for faculty, post-docs and students to see what’s going on in the field and to stay up-to-date,” Kar said. “It’s also a place to network and discover new collaborations.”

At a poster session taking place today, third-year physics major Christa Hoskin will present research that she has conducted in the lab of professor and physics department chair Paul Champion. The research focuses on proton transfer in biological systems, with a particular focus on the use of fluorescent markers to track cellular processes. The flourescent marker being studied is the green fluorescent protein, the discovery and development of which earned three researchers the 2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

“How the fluorescence is produced is well understood,” Hoskin said. “What isn’t entirely understood is the light-induced proton transfer that activates the fluorescence.”

View the full version of Kakalios’ lecture on the “The Physics of Superheroes” here.