As must be glaringly apparent, I’m a bit of a whore for popular science. This is a more recent development, as I’ve been inspired to read more since going back to school, but I’ve been fascinated by science and astronomy since I was a kid. Books like Cosmos and Big Bang are great because they enable me to feel and sound much, much smarter than I actually am. I may only have the math skills of an eighth grader, but I can explain to you what time dilation is! Through the use of an analogy.
It was this interest in science-for-idiots that led me several years ago to purchase two books entitled The Science of Superman and The Science of Superheroes. The former I got for my roommate/best friend at the time, who was a confessing Superman fan, if not a practicing one. The guy owned a total of maybe three comic books, but he was the biggest Superman fan in the world. Anyway, the guy who wrote that book devoted its 250 pages to creatively re-arranging the laws of physics to explain how Superman’s abilities would work, if he were real. A lot of it sounded technical, but I doubt there was much in the way of actual hard science. He attributes Superman’s power of flight to anti-gravitons, for instance, when nobody has yet discovered a way to detect and verify gravitons, let alone their evil twins.
The second book I bought for myself. It was a bit more grounded in reality, and basically took the stance “Okay, here’s what we know the laws of physics actually are. Based on that, could these comic book heroes actually do any of this shit?” The answer in some cases is actually yes, although the book is most entertaining when the authors explain how impossible most superhero abilities are. My favorite: the mercilessly blunt debunking of the Incredible Hulk’s origin story; turns out that exposure to massive amounts of gamma radiation won’t give you a giant green indestructible Mr. Hyde afterall – it’ll just kill you! I was also interested to learn that Spider-Man’s famous strength and agility – the proportional strength and speed of a spider, as they say – could not possibly have come from spiders, who are relatively weak and clumsy and therefore must rely on guile and deception to catch their prey. (For a tarantula, hiding in a hole and jumping out at shit that passes by counts as “guile and deception” because their brains don’t have room for much else.)
A sequel to The Science of Superheroes came out not too long ago, entitled The Science of Supervillains, but I didn’t pick it up. Looked like more of the same, and do I really care if Magneto would actually be able to rip the blood out of someone’s veins by pulling on the iron in their hemoglobin? I do not. But a few weeks ago at Borders I saw another book, this one called The Physics of Superheroes. At first I thought it was another spin-off, but no – different author, different publisher. What is The Physics of Superheroes about? Here’s the Book Description from Amazon:
The Physics of Superheroes applies the reality of physics to the fantasy of comic books. James Kakalios explores the scientific plausibility of the powers and feats of the most famous superheroes—and discovers that in many cases the comic writers got their science surprisingly right. Along the way he provides an engaging and witty commentary while introducing the lay reader to both classic and cutting-edge concepts in physics, including:
• What Superman’s strength can tell us about the Newtonian physics of force, mass, and acceleration
• How Iceman’s and Storm’s powers illustrate the principles of thermal dynamics
• The physics behind the death of Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy
• Why physics professors gone bad are the most dangerous evil geniuses!
Seems oddly familiar. Hey, I wonder what the back cover of The Science of Superheroes says . . .
The Science of Superheroes takes a lighthearted but clear-headed look at the real science that underlies some of the greatest superhero comic books of all time, including Spider-Man, Batman, Fantastic Four, and many more. Each chapter presents the story of the origin of one or more superheroes and asks intriguing questions that lead to fascinating discussions about the limits of science, the laws of nature, and the future of technology.
So who ripped off who? According to Amazon, the hardcover edition of The Science dropped on September 17, 2002; The Physics was released September 29, 2005 – almost exactly three years later, which is too big of a gap for it to be coincidental parallel development, like Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, for instance, or Capote and Infamous, and plenty of time for author James Kakalios to appropriate the premise and tweak it out just enough to shut the lawyers up. Kakalios is apparently a legit physicist who wanted to use his book to teach people scientific concepts using superheroes as examples. I think that’s great, but if that was his only motive it makes me wonder why he bothered to write his own book when there was already one out there that did the exact same fucking thing.
Kakalios’s book is about 150 pages longer than The Science; what’s in all those extra pages, I wonder. The Amazon description offers a tantalizing peek:
In this scintillating scientific survey of super powers you’ll learn what the physics of forces and motion can reveal about Superman’s strength and the true cause of the destruction of his home planet Krypton, what villains Magneto and Electro can teach us about the nature of electricity—and finally get the definitive answer about whether it was the Green Goblin or Spider-Man’s webbing that killed the Wall Crawler’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy in that fateful plunge from the George Washington Bridge!
The definitive answer to what killed Gwen Stacy? Was the panel where Spidey’s web abruptly jerked her out of freefall and snapped her neck too ambiguous? The letterer that issue must have thought so, because he added a helpful “SNAP!” sound effect right next to Gwen’s neck. Try using physics to solve a real comic book mystery, like how the fuck Jason Todd could still be alive. Are physicists really this hard-up for something to do? Should qualified scientists be writing about what makes the Human Torch burn when we haven’t even settled this whole “What the fuck do we do when the oil runs out” dilemma?
It ain’t exactly the kind of stuff that wins people Pulitzer Prizes. And judging by the fact that, just over a year after its release, The Physics of Superheroes is already a bargain book, it isn’t the kind of stuff that sells particularly well, either. People who buy books like these hold a very specific niche in the book market; you might get ‘em to bite on The Science of Supervillains, since I know there are geeks out there even now breathlessly awaiting an explanation for whether or not Marvel’s Sandman holds his shape better wet or dry, but toss out a book that’s just a cheap knock-off of one they already have and they will pass you by, my friend. Unless it’s got “Ultimate” in the title; that’s totally different.