The Mathematics of Spiderman and the Physics of Superheroes

I have not seen the new Spi­der­man reboot, so I’ll have to reserve judg­ment on the virtues of the movie. But, in gen­er­al, super­hero movies suc­ceed or fail for me based on how plau­si­ble and con­sis­tent the physics of the alter­nate uni­verse they cre­ate are. In the above video from the “Emory [Uni­ver­si­ty] Looks at Hol­ly­wood” series, Skip Garibal­di, pro­fes­sor of math­e­mat­ics (who pre­vi­ous­ly exam­ined the math of rock climb­ing) explains that the new Spi­der­man film does, with a minor excep­tion, por­tray the feats of Spi­der­man in a math­e­mat­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble way—granted that we’re will­ing to believe in super­pow­ers. For exam­ple, Spi­der­man’s grace­ful swings through the city on long strands of web­bing don’t just serve a cin­e­mat­ic pur­pose; they also keep him from pos­si­bly dis­lo­cat­ing his shoul­ders while com­ing to a full-stop from a free-fall.

Ana­lyz­ing the sci­ence of super­heroes is a fun side­line for pop cul­ture-mind­ed sci­en­tists. In some cas­es, it can be an effec­tive teach­ing tool as well. Uni­ver­si­ty of Min­neso­ta physi­cist and com­ic book fan James Kakalios devotes an entire lec­ture to “The Uncan­ny Physics of Super­hero Com­ic Books.” Kakalios, who has writ­ten a book called the Physics of Super­heroesworked as a sci­ence con­sul­tant on the Spi­der­man reboot and on Zack Snyder’s adap­ta­tion of Watch­men, which he dis­cuss­es below.

Many great physics cours­es (some intro­duc­to­ry, some advanced) can be found in the Physics sec­tion of our col­lec­tion of 500 Free Online Cours­es.

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