On May 24, physics professor and author James Kakalios surveyed the crowd waiting for his talk.
“Thank you all for coming to listen to me talk about physics on such a lovely day,” Kakalios greeted the audience, “Obviously you are all a bunch of nerds.”
His kind of people.
Kakalios is the author of best-selling The Physics of Superheroes and came to Powell’s Books shortly after the release of his newest popular science book, The Physics of Everyday Things.
What followed James Kakalios’s introduction was an unorthodox author event that ended up being a fascinating physics talk.
I shouldn’t be surprised— the inspiration for his first book, The Physics of Superheroes, came from his popular freshman seminar class at the University of Minnesota, entitled “Everything I Know About Physics I Learned By Reading Comic Books”, which, Kakalios joked, “my colleagues says explains a great deal.”
He has become known as the expert on superhero physics, ending up in the news, on talk shows, giving lectures and even trivial pursuit cards. It took him to Hollywood as he became a science consultant for major superhero films such as Watchmen and The Amazing Spider-Man.
In his newest book, “I make you the superhero and follow you through a normal day.”
Kakalios calls it “narrative physics” and gave the us a taste of what he meant with the confidence of someone used to lecturing physics in front of an audience.
His engaging style and sense of humor drew me in and I became fascinated by his accessible explanations of the physics we encounter in everyday objects.
I came away not just excited for his new book, but feeling like I had learned quite a bit.
He explained wireless charging, using the plastic covered electric toothbrush charging dock as an example. My suspicion of wireless charging pads fell away as soon as I felt I actually understood inductive charging. He explained why you can’t use your iPhone when wearing gloves (humans conduct electricity, but gloves act as an insulator). All I need now is thread that conducts electricity to improve my mittens.
As the book follows a regular day from morning until night, when you interact with something (your toothbrush, the TSA body scanner, a fitbit, etc), the book “zooms in” to explain the physics that makes it work.
“One of the fun things about writing the book was noticing myself as I went through the day.” said Kakalios, who spent time thinking of all the things we experience in our daily lives. He related a time he walked through a hallway and the lights blinked on, causing him to stop and realize “oh yeah, motion sensors!”
Although Kakalios explains physics with a good amount of levity, he takes science communication seriously.
“Most people will never become scientists or engineers, but hopefully all of you are citizens and voters,” he said. “More and more, you are asked to have opinions and knowledge about science.”
Since the mid-twentieth century, people’s attitudes toward science have slowly changed. Kakalios once again returned to comics and pulp stories to illustrate his point: Invasion of earth or giant monster-type stories often ended with a lone scientist saving the day. These stories were “infused with a respect for science and expertise.”
“Most people will never become scientists or engineers, but hopefully all of you are citizens and voters.”
If people have a better understanding of how physics and science interacts with and improves our life everyday, it will change how they relate to science and scientists.
“Science is universal and can’t be dismissed when convenient,” he pointed out. “You can’t say ‘I like this physics when its in a TV remote, but not when it’s up in the atmosphere.’”
Only sixty-six years— two generations— after the Wright Brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Kakalios pointed out.
“That doesn’t happen by accident, that happens by positive support of science.”
James Kakalios is the author of three popular science books, available on Amazon and other booksellers: The Physics of Superheroes, The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics, and his newest one, The Physics of Everyday Things.