Death Rays, Jet Packs, Stunts and Supercars: The Fantastic Physics of Film’s Most Celebrated Secret Agent ,
The Physics of Superheroes ,
Following the enormous success of Lawrence Krauss’s The Physics of Star Trek (Basic Books, 1995), we now have several attempts to take advantage of the surprisingly large market he discovered. Just fill in the blank: “The Physics of _____,” and one expects to have a winner. It sounds easy, but it isn’t.
I frequently cite popular-culture images in my own introductory class, “Physics for Future Presidents,” at the University of California at Berkeley. Thus I looked with eager anticipation to two new books—Barry Parker’s Death Rays, Jet Packs, Stunts and Supercars: The Fantastic Physics of Film’s Most Celebrated Secret Agent and James Kakalios’s The Physics of Superheroes. I was terribly disappointed.
The worst one is the book about Bond—James Bond—by Parker, a professor emeritus of physics at Idaho State University. The text drifts from merely annoying to sloppy. For example, he assumes every reader has a vivid memory of every moment of every Bond movie, and his ski-jump figure doesn’t correspond to his text. The book also ranges from irrelevant to misleading to historically inaccurate to just plain wrong. Parker introduces a discussion on lasers by discussing Maxwell’s equations and then never uses them; he implies that phase sensitivity is essential to three-dimensional perception; he wrongly asserts that Albert Einstein’s E = mc 2 played a major role in the invention of the atomic bomb; and his description of nuclear weapons shows that he never read Richard Rhodes’s excellent The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon & Schuster, 1986). Almost every page of Parker’s book is seriously defective.
Kakalios’s The Physics of Superheroes is better, but he is up against an impossible problem. Most science-fiction movies make a reasonable attempt at obeying physics, with a notable exception being Paramount Picture’s The Core, but comic books make no attempt at all. Kakalios, a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, teaches a freshman seminar with the attractive name “Everything I Needed to Know About Physics I Learned from Comic Books.” But his book shows that the seminar’s catchy title is a gross exaggeration. Most of what superheroes do in comic books cannot be made compatible with physics. Kakalios hardly tries to reconcile the science fiction of comics with physics. Instead, he describes the powers of comic-book superheroes and uses those traits as an opportunity to launch into interesting physics. So, for example, a superhero who can walk through walls is used as an excuse to discuss quantum mechanical tunneling. But Kakalios’s fundamental conclusion, which is correct, is that the hero’s abilities are totally incompatible with quantum mechanics.
The author offers an interesting discussion of the historical development of some of the superheroes. For example, for the first year of Superman’s comic-book existence, he couldn’t fly; he could only “leap tall buildings in a single bound” as a consequence of his strength. Kakalios uses Superman’s leaping ability to do some elementary physics calculations.
The beauty of physics is well hidden in both books. Parker writes down lots of equations, but he just pulls them out of the air, with no explanation or derivation or relationship to anything else. Kakalios offers virtually no equations, except for a one-dimensional version of the Schrödinger equation, apparently placed among the superhero images just to offer some mathematical dazzle. The contents of the books read like the sophomoric discussions by physics students who are making fun of comic books or Bond movies, and who are trying to show their wit and erudition. I can’t figure out who would like the books. There are some nice moments, but they are too far apart to make them worth reading. I doubt that any reader of Physics Today would enjoy either book, and I strongly advise against giving them as presents to either children or adult fans of comic books or James Bond—and I am a fan of both.
Krauss, author of the Star Trek book, wrote a foreword to Kakalios’s book. He cleverly managed to write nearly two pages without endorsing it, other than calling it “far-reaching.” He talked instead about the joy he has found in comic books. The Physics of Superheroes and Death Rays, Jet Packs, Stunts and Supercars are nowhere near the standard he has set. I give the books a thumbs-down—with both hands. If you want to give those who love reading about the science of science fiction a present, give them The Physics of Star Trek, still the best of its genre.