The Physics of Superheroes (Free PDF)

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While Wile E. Coyote is by no stretch of the imagination a superhero, I have to admit that it was this hapless villain—who escaped almost certain death episode after episode while continuing to fruitlessly chase the Road Runner with almost Sisyphean intensity day in and day out—who first got me thinking about the physics of illustrated characters. Even as a relatively young boy hooked on television, I suspected there was something fishy whenever I saw Wile E. run off a cliff and hover indefinitely until the moment he realized there was no solid ground underneath. Somehow it seemed to me even then that gravity should continue to work, whether or not one was conscious of it.

I bring this example up, in spite of the fact that it involves no superheroes, and in fact involves a television cartoon rather than a comic book figure, because it illustrates a point that has become central to the way I think about teaching physics: Few things are more memorable than confronting one’s own misconceptions. Indeed, some among those of us who study “physics education” for a living suggest that it is only by directly encouraging students to run up against their own misconceptions that one can hope to truly cause them to internalize what one is teaching them. I don’t know whether this is true or not, but I do know that if you want to reach out to understand popular misconceptions, then exploiting where we get our cultural perspectives from is a good place to start. And if that means borrowing from Superman, or Star Trek, I am all for it!

Introduction: Secret Origins: How Science Saved Superhero Comic Books
Section 1—Mechanics
1. Up, Up, and Away— Forces and Motion
2. Deconstructing Krypton— Newton’s Law of Gravity
3. The Day Gwen Stacy Died— Impulse and Momentum
4. Can He Swing from a Thread?— Centripetal Acceleration
5. Flash Facts— Friction, Drag, and Sound
6. Like a Flash of Lightning— Special Relativity
7. If This Be My Density— Properties of Matter
8. Can Ant-Man Punch His Way Out of a Paper Bag?— Torque and Rotation
9. Is Ant-Man Deaf, Dumb, and Blind?— Simple Harmonic Motion
10. Does Size Matter?— The Cube-Square Law
Section 2—Energy—Heat and Light
11 . The Central City Diet plan— Conservation of Energy
12. The Case of the Missing Work— The Three Laws of Thermodynamics
13. Mutant Meteorology— Conduction and Convection
14. how The Monstrous Menace of the Mysterious Melter Makes Dinner Preparation a Breeze— Phase Transitions
15. Electro’s Clinging Ways— Electrostatics
16. Superman Schools Spider-Man— Electrical Currents
1 7. How Electro Becomes Magneto When He Runs— Ampere’s Law
1 8. How Magneto Becomes Electro When He Runs— Magnetism and Faraday’s Law
19. Electro and Magneto Do the Wave— Electromagnetism and Light
Section 3—Modern Physics
20. Journey into the Microverse— Atomic Physics
21 . Not a Dream! Not a Hoax! Not an Imaginary Tale!— Quantum Mechanics
22. Through a Wall Lightly— Tunneling Phenomena
23. Sock It to Shellhead— Solid-State Physics
Section 4—What Have We Learned?
24. Me Am Bizarro!— Superhero Bloopers
Afterword: Lo, There Shall Be an Ending!
Ask Dr. K!
Recommended Reading
Key Equations

Author Details
"James Kakalios"

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