Spider-Man Gets A Physics Lesson

The Amazing Spider-Man opens in theaters next week—will there be some spidey-science on the screen? Physicist James Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes, and a science consultant on the movie, breaks down the physics of Spider-Man, and explains why even superheroes need to obey some laws of nature.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy hit the big screen again next week. The new movie "The Amazing Spider-Man" opens on July 3rd. And once you accept the premise that a man can get super spidey skills from a radioactive - sorry to laugh - spider bite, well, you know, just like Johnny Carson used to say, you buy the premise, you buy the bit.

You might be surprised to learn that moviemakers worked some real science into the superhero saga. Hollywood has gotten wise to what savvy audiences want. You folks, you want the physics to be real, right? You want the physics to be real right there in the fantasies after you bought the idea that there is a Spider-Man.

Joining me now to talk about it is James Kakalios. He's a professor of physics at University of Minnesota. He was a science consultant for the new Spider-Man movie. He's author of "The Physics of Superheroes: Spectacular Second Edition," and he joins us from Minnesota Public Radio in Saint Paul. Welcome back to the show, Peter.

JAMES KAKALIOS: It's Jim.

FLATOW: James. I'm sorry. Keep calling you Peter.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I don't know why I keep calling you Peter. James. James Kakalious...

KAKALIOS: I was bitten by a radioactive spider, and I just got very sick.

FLATOW: I just thought you look like Peter Parker, so you should be very complimented by that.

KAKALIOS: I did grow up in Queens, New York, so I share a lot with Peter.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I apologize. So you were basically called on to referee the physics in this movie?

KAKALIOS: That's right. Through the National Academy Of Sciences science and entertainment exchange program, they match-make professors from academia with film or television creators in Hollywood because they're increasingly in - when they create science fiction or superhero stories, they'd like to talk to scientists to try to be able to ground the science and also to even see if they can come up with plot points based upon real science.

So they contacted me, flew me out to meet Marc Webb and some of the producers and production designer, Mike Riva, before the filming even began. It was kind of fun to go there and just see copies of the physicist superheroes throughout their office.

(LAUGHTER)

KAKALIOS: So they were out - they were doing this study, and they were doing their homework.

FLATOW: All right. Hang on a second because we have to take a break. We'll come back and talk lots more with James Kakalios after this break and about Spider-Man. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Stay with us. We'll be right back. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking with Jim Kakalios, professor of physics at the University of Minnesota, author of "The Physics of Superheroes," spectacular second edition. He is, I guess, the science expert on the new Spider-Man movie, "The Amazing Spider-Man." Do the producers realize that the audience really want their science correct, showed in the movie?

KAKALIOS: Well, obviously they don't want it 100 percent correct because then it'd be like watching the news.

(LAUGHTER)

KAKALIOS: So they're - the audience is willing to make, you know, a suspension of disbelief to grant a one-time miracle exemption from the laws of nature, as it were.

FLATOW: Right.

KAKALIOS: But then the filmmakers want to get the science right within that context. Once you accept spider powers or people transforming into giant lizards, the other stuff that happened should be consistent, should be right, because it helps keep the audience in the story. Anytime when they're questioning what they're seeing on screen, even little things like, you know, a laboratory doesn't look like a real laboratory, is a moment when they're not paying attention to the story.

So they key thing is to get the audience to buy into this fantastic story, and sometimes the best way to buy into something fantastic is to try to make it as realistic as possible.

FLATOW: But you know, these days everything is computer-generated, it seems, in all of these movies.

KAKALIOS: Right.

FLATOW: And you say to yourself, I don't even know what scenery is real. I don't know if the person is flying or what is real in here. Anything could happen.

KAKALIOS: That's exactly right. And in fact, actually, one of the interesting things with this new Spider-Man film is that they tried to go as much as possible to stuntmen actually swinging on wires and not do CGI as much as possible. I think it's partly because of exactly what you said, that the CGI is so good that the only way to make something look realistic, truly real, is to actually put a person in a suit.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: So when Spider-Man is swinging around, he's actually swing - or a stuntman is actually swinging around.

KAKALIOS: For a large part of the film, that is correct, yeah.

FLATOW: Because one of the physics questions I was going to ask you is how, you know, in some of these scenes in some of these films, the heroes jump off buildings, they stop on a dime, you know, things that would be impossible.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You know, by swinging, they might be breaking their bones trying - or their necks or something with these arcs...

KAKALIOS: Well, that's exactly right. Fortunately, Peter Parker has spider strength and so...

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: I forgot. I forgot.

KAKALIOS: He's able to withstand enormous accelerations and decelerations. But you're absolutely right. And that's, in fact, the challenge for the CGI, is to try to get that as correct as possible. One interesting experience I had at the end of the very first Spider-Man film in 2002, there's a scene where he's swinging through the canyons of New York and he lands on a flagpole. And I've used this scene in my class. And if you listen very carefully, you could hear a very subtle thunk as he lands on the flagpole.

And the entire scene is CGI, so they obviously had to put that thunk in by hand. And I had an opportunity years later to talk to the special effects people who did that, and they said that their studies of neuroscience show that you expect to hear certain things even subconsciously. And so if that thunk isn't there, it's not as if you would have walked out of the movie complaining that the movie stunk because when he landed on the flagpole there was no thunk.

FLATOW: Right.

KAKALIOS: But rather, you wouldn't - without being aware of it, you'd know that something was off, and it would remind you that it's CGI, whereas the thunk is a very subtle cue to try to convince you that what you're watching is real. And so they're - you're absolutely right. The CGI has gotten tremendously sophisticated, and they're using cutting-edge science, neuroscience in some cases, to try to paint a realistic world inside the computer.

FLATOW: Yeah. You know, every science fiction, science movie on radio or TV, somewhere along the line, there's a giant blackboard filled with equations, right?

KAKALIOS: Yes.

FLATOW: And this movie is no different.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You had to come up with...

KAKALIOS: That's right.

FLATOW: How do you come up with those equations? And I know that you were involved in it. How do you figure our what to put on the blackboard?

KAKALIOS: That's an excellent point. One of my pet peeves is that sometimes you would see on blackboards in these films a random collection of complex equations that had no connection to each other, as if the art designer had just flipped through some physics textbooks and written down things that look very complicated. And often they look complicated to someone who is outside of science. Within science they're like undergraduate material, and there'd be no real reason to write them on the blackboard.

KAKALIOS: And so they asked me to come up with an equation that would actually play a role in the plot, that a character would see this equation and something would happen, and the audience would have to recognize it when they saw it again later on. So it had to be visually recognizable and striking. And I asked, well, what is it about? And they said, well, it has to do with cell regeneration and human mortality issues. And I didn't want to use a real equation because, again, if it's a major plot point that some people know this and some people don't, if I just wrote down like say in physics, the Schrodinger equation, you know, all the people who study physics would say, what's the big deal? It's the Schrodinger equation.

FLATOW: Right.

KAKALIOS: So I started - I did some - it was actually a fun weekend looking through the literature on issues of, you know, human aging and longevity studies and an equation called the Gompertz equation that describes human mortality. And so I took that as the basis, as like the primer coat. And then I added terms in order to turn it from something real into something not real because the Gompertz - the equation in the movie, if you try to actually apply it, will not actually turn you into a giant lizard. Spoiler alert.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Thank goodness. I couldn't write fast enough in the film there as I was watching.

KAKALIOS: And so - but...

FLATOW: But they - did they insist on having the whole board filled or, you know, or you sweetening it up with other stuff?

KAKALIOS: That was them to the most part, but I did add various things. They also asked me like, you know, what would whiteboards, what would blackboards look like? And again, I stressed that it's not just, you know, a random collection of equations, that frequently when we write on board, we're trying to solve a particular problem. So you're seeing, you know, a lot of similarity because it's steps in a solution.

FLATOW: Stanley Kubrick was very famous for making sure his equations were right in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

(LAUGHTER)

KAKALIOS: Yes. And...

FLATOW: Directors like that, some of the good ones.

KAKALIOS: And that's why it's a classic.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. What about some of the other questions you have? For example, when you talked about Spider-Man, why do they have - why was it - is it a radioactive spider? And what is the radioactivity doing in a genetics lab, things like that?

(LAUGHTER)

KAKALIOS: Well, you know, it was originally a radioactive spider because Peter - Spider-Man first appeared in 1962. So radioactivity...

FLATOW: That explains it all.

KAKALIOS: ...that was the big bugaboo. And then back in the '90s and 2000s, it was genetic engineering that became the thing that people were nervous about. Maybe in another 20 years it'll be a nanotechnology spider that is - it's always like whatever...

FLATOW: Michael Crichton was already there with...

KAKALIOS: Yeah, that's exactly right.

FLATOW: Right.

KAKALIOS: And so it was radioactive first because Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, the creators of Spider-Man, viewed that as kind of like a catch-all way to give people super powers. Why you might have radioactivity in a lab now - and this is something that I don't - I haven't seen the film yet. I haven't seen any script.

FLATOW: Wait a minute. You put all this in the film and you haven't seen the film?

(LAUGHTER)

KAKALIOS: Not yet, not yet. But I'll be there. I'll be there on July 3.

FLATOW: OK.

KAKALIOS: And - but why you might use radioactivity is for gene-splicing, say. I could imagine if someone was under pressure to get results in a short period of time, like in - working for a company like Oscorp - that they might try to shortcuts and use radioactive - radioactivity as a scalpel to kind of slice the lizard DNA, say, or something like that, in order to do cross-species genetics. This is just - again, these are the kind of things that you kind of - when - they asked me, why would we have radioactivity in a genetics lab? And you know, these are...

FLATOW: You don't say, it's not my script?

(LAUGHTER)

KAKALIOS: I'd certainly didn't get a writing credit.

(LAUGHTER)

KAKALIOS: But...

FLATOW: Yeah. Go ahead.

KAKALIOS: But it's - and whether this is indeed how people who do real genetic engineering do it or not is almost immaterial. It's a way of trying to justify, you know, that this is some plausible scheme by which you could move the story forward.

Again, the whole point is to just get the audience to not, like, you know, accept it. They're not there taking notes. And when I go to these movies, I don't take notes with a pad of paper and a calculator saying, ooh, my physics sense is tingling. But it's to try to create a believable world so that the audience buys into what they're seeing and accepts it. And they can pay attention to what you're trying to do in the story, like the personal - you know, the characters' relationships and things like that.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's all about the story. Let's go to Tim in Chicago. Hi, Tim. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

TIM: Hey, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hey there.

TIM: Hey, you know, those old science fiction movies in the old days where they got stuff, you know, it's hard to watch those these days because, you know, we're quite advanced now. You know, the only guys that can get away with most of this stuff is like Bones in "Star Trek," you know? But when some patient's laying down on a bed and they're trying to get these vital statistics and they can see that the guy doesn't even have a blood pressure cuff on or he doesn't have an IV, and they've got all this stuff hooked up but there's nothing hooked up to the patient, it kind of - it loses its credibility.

FLATOW: Now, wait. Tim, wait a minute. Tim, you haven't seen the new stuff coming out. This is not, I mean your iPhone is going to be able to do a lot of this stuff soon - you know, digital medicine. But you're right. How much - Tim, how much do you need to know that, you know, you bought the bit that there's a Spider-Man. But now how much do you need to know that the rest of stuff fits together?

TIM: If a guy is actually sitting there doing a procedure on somebody, I mean it has to at least - it has to boggle my mind, or it has to at least, you know, make me ask the question, is this possible? If something is really hocus pocus like rabbit-out-of-a-hat stuff, then I'll walk out of the theater right there, right then and there. I mean, it's that point when I'll lose - when it loses its credibility totally is when I've lost interest in the movie and that's it, because I know what I can expect through the rest of show.

FLATOW: Jim, is there a limit of what people are willing to put up with?

KAKALIOS: Well, a lot of it depends on how far in the future you're going to go. And the prediction of the technology in the future is obviously very difficult. For example, one thing that was very futuristic back when "Star Trek" first appeared in the mid-'60s was the communicator. You would never buy a cellphone today that did only what a "Star Trek" communicator does. It has no Web access. It doesn't take photos. There's no video. You can't update your Facebook page. And so...

FLATOW: But it flipped open.

KAKALIOS: But it flipped open. It made that cool noise. Doo-doo-doo.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: It's where Motorola got the idea for its cellphone.

KAKALIOS: Yes, that's right. So to some extent, predicting, you know, they predicted the cellphone, but they, you know, were totally off in terms of how fast it would move. One of the things that I try to find predictions of - for another book that I wrote about, quantum mechanics, that of technology from science fiction pulps or movies at the time and I couldn't find was magnetic resonance imaging. I was trying to see if any of the pulps had ever said that there'd be a time where you could just lay down on a table, as they mentioned, and the doctors could see inside you without the cut of a knife.

And if you saw that in the 1950s science fiction movie, you'd say, oh, that's just science fiction. You know, that's, you know, never going to happen. That's a special effect. But it's a routine diagnostic today. And so while it does seem implausible that one could take blood pressure remotely, wirelessly as it were, in 300 years, you know, or 200 years, I'd be hard-pressed to make ironclad prediction of what can or cannot be done. If anything is limited by computer speed, that will probably almost certainly happen. Other than - if anything involves an actual violation of the laws of physics, then probably not so much.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. Talking with Jim Kakalios about, well, with physics in the movies. He's author of "The Physics of Superheroes: Spectacular Second Edition." You know what drives me nutty sometimes is when - if you go so far ahead, like hundreds of years in the future, but they're still using old tankers. You know, like on "Alien" and things like that. You'd think they'd have more kinds of weapons that could kill anything, but they haven't advanced the technology very much.

KAKALIOS: Right. Yeah, it's - well, at least in "Alien," they do acknowledge that you have to go in suspended animation for these long hauls and things like that. But, yeah, you're absolutely right. It's - that is the hardest thing and, you know, Neil - not Neil Diamond. Neil Stephenson, in the novel "The Diamond Age," wrote something back in the '90s about electronic paper that you would roll up and unroll, and they would suddenly pick up and display the newspaper and what's going on today. And we pretty much have that today, except you can't roll it up. And with the organic semiconductors that are coming, that probably will happen soon. And he was suggesting that was going to be, you know, several hundred years in the future, and he's off only by, you know, 190 years.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Hey, yeah, give or take.

KAKALIOS: Right. Close enough.

FLATOW: Close enough. Let me ask you about the movie. Do you know what happens to Gwen Stacy?

KAKALIOS: Ah.

FLATOW: Does - is she going to die again?

(LAUGHTER)

KAKALIOS: Yeah, I almost thought that the filmmakers were going to count me out as the red herring and say, well, Jim Kakalios is involved, therefore, Gwen Stacy is going to buy the farm. Yeah, so in comic books, this is, you know, well-known, a famous storyline. Gwen Stacy was Peter Parker's girlfriend for many years, many issues, and she died in "Amazing Spider-Man #121," published in 1973. And it was a very significant milestone in comic book history because it was the first time that a recurring character, a long-standing character, innocent bystander, died when the hero and villain fought.

She was caught - she died when Spider-Man was fighting the Green Goblin, and it's also very significant because it's been, you know, going on nearly 40 years now, and Gwen Stacy is still dead in the comic books. Nearly inevitably, these characters get better at some point, but poor Gwen doesn't. And so she was on top of a bridge, brought to the top of the George Washington Bridge by the Green Goblin in order to lure Spider-Man into battle. She gets knocked off the bridge during the fight. Spider - falls to her apparent doom, Spidey catches her in his webbing at the last moment but discovers, when he brings it back up to the top of the bridge, that she is, in fact, dead, even though he caught her in the webbing.

And we can analyze this from a physics point of view, ask if you neglect air resistance, which we always do in these problems, how fast are you going if you fall from the top of a bridge and fall, say, 300 feet? You're going nearly 95 miles per hour. How much force would the webbing have to exert to stop her in, say, half a second? And it's like about half a ton worth of force, equivalent to roughly 10 G's of deceleration. And so that part doesn't require a suspension of disbelief. If you tell someone they are going 95 miles an hour, you stop them in half a second with a force of 10 G's, you'd say, yeah, and their neck broke.

FLATOW: So this - and this is - I gave - I've given many talks about the physics of superheroes, and this is always a central part of me, talking about the death of Gwen Stacy because this - then you connect up why we have airbags on our automobile.

Yeah, well - I got you. Jim, we've ran out of time, but I want to thank you for making this the closest to The Big Bang Theory comic book discussion.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: We could have had (unintelligible).

KAKALIOS: I'll give my - I'll give your regards to Sheldon and Leonard.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Pleased to hear that. Jim Kakalios is author of "The Physics of Superheroes: Spectacular Second Edition." Have a good weekend. A happy Fourth of July to you.

KAKALIOS: And the same to you. Thanks very much.

FLATOW: We're going to say goodbye for this, but I want to remind you that we have our book club going on. We're reading "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson. It's a Fourth of July weekend. I want to wish you a happy Fourth of July. Maybe over the weekend, you'll pick up a copy or dust off your old copy, read it because next week, we're going to have our - our book club is going to start, our first SCIENCE FRIDAY book club, and we'd like you to take part in talking about "Silent Spring." So have a great, safe and happy Fourth of July. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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