Edinburgh Book Fest: James Kakalios.

kakaI live a few minutes from the Edinburgh Book Festival site, so I’m very excited for it to start tomorrow. My first show (even though it’s over a week away) is with one of my favourite authors, James Kakalios. I just think he’s great, and got to interview him recently for a show preview. 99% of his interview didn’t make the cut, since the whole thing was snipped to 180 words, but I loved it too much to leave it unseen, because I really enjoyed it.

So to anyone who likes science, or superheroes, or both, or neither for that matter, I’d recommend James Kakalios. To summarise: he incorporated superheroes into his physics lectures, subsequently wrote a book on his ideas, is now a Hollywood consultant for movies such as Watchmen and The Amazing Spider-Man, keeping their science in check, and now he’s coming to my neck of the woods to talk. Good? Good!

While I do like writing interviews in feature format, rather than Q&A, I think it’s probably best, since my blog is not where it was intended for.

How are you feeling about taking part in the Edinburgh book festival?
I’m very excited and honored to be asked to participate in this year’s EIBF. For years, while just a mild-mannered physics professor, I would read about the Edinburgh Book Festival. To have a chance to attend and present at the Festival, discussing superheroes and science is additional proof that we are living in the Golden Age of Geekdom!

What should those attending your show expect?
A talk with many more scans of comic book pages and clips from Hollywood blockbusters than the standard physics lecture! I’ll show how superhero comic books often get their science right. Was it the “fall” or the “webbing” that was responsible for the death of Spider-Man’s girlfriend, Gwen Stacy (in, as you well know, Amazing Spider-Man # 121)? How does the Flash illustrate Bernoulli’s Principle and the Special Theory of Relativity? And who is faster, Superman or the Flash? I’ll also explain why science fiction magazines and movies promised us jet packs and flying cars, but we got laptop computers and mobile phones instead. For this last point I’ll have to teach Quantum Mechanics to everyone in the audience – shouldn’t take more than ten minutes!

What was it about comic books that caught your interest/kept it strong for years before you managed to integrate it to your work?
I read comic books as a kid but gave them up in High School upon discovering girls (a discovery I’m not given sufficient credit for in the scientific literature – but that’s for another time). I picked up the hobby again in graduate school, as a diversion while writing my dissertation. I continue to read and collect comics, not considering it a “guilty pleasure” as I don’t believe in “guilty” pleasures (Snobbery is just the public face of insecurity). Many of the best comic books are as good as great science fiction, or detective or true crime novels. Superhero comic books have been described as a “Literature of Ethics” where issues of how we should use our talents and gifts are explored and dramatized. And at the end of the day – the bad guys get punched!

What is it about your book The Physics of Superheroes that you think peaks peoples interests, especially those not typically into comic books/superhero movies?
I think many people are interested in learning about the basic principles of science, but are nervous about their ability to understand the subject. This insecurity leads to shields coming up, that can get in the way of understanding. If you can tell the same stories using Spider-Man and Superman, the shields do not come up as quickly, and if you can tie your scientific principles to a specific story line, there is a greater chance that folks will recall the concept being discussed. If the four-color adventures of these super-powered individuals can make it easier for some to learn science – well, it wouldn’t be the first time these heroes have saved the day!

What have you found to be the most exciting or interesting opportunities to arise from your integration of superheroes into your work, and why?
I love trying to see what is the minimal amount of damage I must do to the laws of physics in order to get a characters powers to work. In my book I grant each hero a “one time miracle exception from the laws of Nature.” I then see if, with this suspension of disbelief, what the character is doing in the story is physically acceptable (and often times it is!). I love this, for this involves the same “mental muscles” that we use in the research lab! On a very good day, we will see something that surprises us. If we are surprised, then one or more of our initial assumptions must have been wrong. What do we need to change, to modify, in order to account for our observations? It’s the same process as with the superheroes. It seems like a lifetime of reading comic books was great preparation for being a research scientist! (and not just due to the helpful fashion tips!).

If people take one thing from your Book Fest show, what do you hope it is?
That is is cool to be both a Geek AND a Nerd! (Sorry, ladies, but I’m already married!).
Seriously – I hope that they take away that the world is a knowable place. That there are simple rules that can govern a host of complex phenomena, and that by using our intelligence and ingenuity we have created the true World of Tomorrow. And that with Physics comes both Great Power and Great Responsibility!

So there it is, my fleeting interview with James Kakalios. I thought he was witty while reading his book, and I have to admit I laughed a lot reading his answers. My boyfriend’s sister-in-law is not long off starting her new job as a science teacher and her first few classes are going along the superhero lines to peak people’s interests, and probably as a tangent from all the family arguments over superheroes.

Very excited for his talk.

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