SciFri Live: Superhero Quiz

25:42 minutes


Superhero fans debate what is the best superpower, but what’s the real science behind these super abilities? In this live recording from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, physicist James Kakalios, author of The Physics of Superheroes, tests the superhero science smarts of teams from 3M and the CONvergence sci-fi convention.

Segment Guests

James Kakalios

James Kakalios is author of The Physics of Superheroes (Gotham Books, 2005) and a physicist at the University of Minnesota. He is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Happy New Year. Later this hour, a sci-fi classic. We connect the origins of humanity through science and art in a conversation with novelist Cormac McCarthy, filmmaker Werner Herzog, and physicist Lawrence Krauss.

But first, you get a seat on stage for a special event recorded at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and yes, right, all the children are above average. That’s the home, of course, of a Prairie Home Companion.

The theme of this night, though, last fall was the Science of Superpowers. University of Minnesota physicist James Kakalios unmasked the science behind some of your favorite superheroes. He joined us as our expert judge for our superhero science quiz. So get your pencils ready as the curtain comes out.


Science and scientists are inspired by fiction and fictional heroes, superheroes. And all of us who love superheroes are continually arguing, who is the best comic book superhero? What is the greatest superpower? Mine’s better than yours. All that kind of stuff.

Well, is it Superman’s ability to fly and his super strength? Maybe Jean Grey and her telepathic powers? Or Mr. Midnight’s ability to stop clocks from ticking? Do you remember Mr. Midnight? He only lasted for two stories. Not everybody remembers him.

So right here on our stage, we’re going to unmask the science behind these superpowers, and see how they all stack up. And we’re going to test your superhero science IQ. My next guest has analyzed the world of superheroes, and has crunched the numbers behind their powers. James Kakalios is a Professor of Physics at the University of Minnesota, author of the book The Physics of Superheroes. Welcome. Welcome back to Science Friday.

JAMES KAKALIOS: Thank you very much, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Pleasure to have you, Jim.

JAMES KAKALIOS: You’ve expanded the studio from the last test.



Well, you grew up reading comic books, right?

JAMES KAKALIOS: I did. I read comics as a kid. I gave them up in high school upon discovering girls.

IRA FLATOW: You had priorities.

JAMES KAKALIOS: A discovery I’m not given enough credit for in the scientific literature.

IRA FLATOW: So when did you get hooked on the science part of the comics?

JAMES KAKALIOS: Well, I picked up, actually, the hobby of reading comic books back in graduate school, just as way of relieving stress working on my dissertation. As a professor at the University of Minnesota, I started bringing in superhero examples into my freshman introductory physics classes. Because this will come as a shock to you, Ira, but some of my students actually find physics dull.



IRA FLATOW: I’m shocked.


IRA FLATOW: Very shocked.

JAMES KAKALIOS: And they always complain, when am I ever going to use this in my real life? Interestingly enough, whenever I use superheroes to illustrate physics principles, students never wonder when they’re going to use this in their real life. Apparently, they all have plans after graduation that involve Spandex and–


IRA FLATOW: Do you still do research?

JAMES KAKALIOS: Oh, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah? What kind of research do you do?

JAMES KAKALIOS: I do work– my work research actually goes from the nano to the neuro. So we make nanocrystals of silicon. We embed them into other types of semiconductors to make better transistors of solar cells. And we use techniques we developed to study electronic noise in semiconductors and collaborate with neuroscientists to study voltage fluctuations in the brain.


JAMES KAKALIOS: But that’s why I’m here today.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I want you to think hard– I want you to think hard before you answer this question. And that is, which is harder to work out, the physics of the semiconductors or the physics of the superheroes?

JAMES KAKALIOS: To some extent, it the superheroes are a little bit more open-ended, because we can’t always just go to experiment to resolve a question. So I would say that in some sense, they’re almost the same. Because in both cases, you’re challenging your preconceptions, and you’re asking what if.

IRA FLATOW: All right. We’re going to get into this, and we’re going to play our game. Can you hang out a little bit longer?


IRA FLATOW: Jim is going to be our judge. Are you all ready to play our quiz?



Superheroes, they can blast lasers from their eyes. They can leap tall buildings in a single bound. But what is the science behind all of these superheroes?


IRA FLATOW: How well do you know in the audience the physics of superheroes? We’re going to test your knowledge, along with the contestants that we have on our stage. So if you’re all ready to play– you ready to play everybody? Annie Minoff is helping us with our official time keeping and scorekeeping. Let me introduce you all to Annie Minoff. Hi, Annie.


IRA FLATOW: Hey, there. Give us an idea of what those valuable prizes are.

ANNIE MINOFF: The winners will get a Sci Fri swag bag with a Sci Fri t-shirt and tote bag.

IRA FLATOW: I don’t even have one of those.


Something wrong here. OK. All right. Let’s meet our teams. When you think about science in the Twin Cities, of course, one of the big innovations that pops into your mind is the Post-It Note, right? That’s 3M. Our first team is made up of scientists from 3M. Welcome, Team 3M.


Please, get up to the mic and introduce yourselves.

AINSLEY GRANT: I’m Ainsley Grant, and I work in the Renewable Energy Division at 3M. And we use material solutions to help make power, basically. We build solar panels. We work on wind turbines. And we just apply science to life.



And you say, sir?

MAN: My name is [INAUDIBLE]. I work at 3M too in corporate research. And I work in a new field called biomimicry, where I take inspiration from nature, and particularly spiders, to create products that you use in day-to-day life.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. That’s terrific.

MAN: It’s really a science of life to life.

IRA FLATOW: Two real nerds. It’s good to have you here.

MAN: Thank you. Thank you.

AINSLEY GRANT: Yeah, thanks.

IRA FLATOW: Good to have you here.


Hey, I count myself amongst you. Now, who would battle the wits of research scientists? We wanted a team that really knew their superhero stuff. Our second team is from the Convergence Convention. That’s an annual science fiction and fantasy gathering that happens right here in the Twin Cities that I’m sure you know about. Welcome team Convergence to the quiz.


Please introduce yourselves to our audience.

TIM: Sure. Hi. I’m Tim Wick. I am a playwright and comedian. And I’m also the Green Lantern.


BRIANNE: My name is Brianne [INAUDIBLE], and I am a Convergence attendee. And for my day job, I am a development scientist.

IRA FLATOW: Very nice. Very nice. Thank you. OK. A couple of ground rules before we begin. First, we want you to participate in the audience. If you want to react with applause, that’s fine. And as they say in the quiz shows, though, rule number two, is our judge’s decision is final. No arguing with the judges. We don’t have instant replay to actually go back.


All right. Here’s how we’re going to play. We’re going to show a movie clip, and then we’re going to ask our question based on that clip. Both teams will have 15 seconds to answer the question. They have those little white boards that they’re going to write down the questions, the answers, on the white boards.

We might, if we don’t understand why you chose something, we might ask you to explain the answer to give to us. The good news is that the questions get harder as we go on. But why that’s good news is because they’re worth more points. So if you’re behind in the score and you get a question later, you could catch up and win the game. So that’s the good news about it.

And have everybody in the audience, you’re gonna see the questions. You can play along, but don’t shout out the answers. Please? You’ll embarrass yourself when it’s wrong, and we don’t want that to happen. Are we all ready to go? Everybody ready to play? OK.


All right. Let’s go to question number one. It’s worth one point.


Gee, we spent a lot of money on this one, I could see. In Watchmen, physicist John Osterman is accidentally trapped inside a nuclear test chamber. After he reassemble says molecules back together, he re-emerges as the aptly named superhero Dr. Manhattan. Why it’s Manhattan, not Brooklyn, I don’t know.

Anyhow, he has superpowers any physicist could envy, like controlling matter and energy, as you can see in this clip.


-If Adrian, and I can solve the energy crisis, war may be averted.

-You always say that time is simultaneous. If that’s true, then how can you change the future?

-If only you could perceive time as I do.


IRA FLATOW: Very spooky. Now. Now for the question. Not only is Dr. Manhattan bigger and better, but as you can see from the clip, he’s also bluer. And that glowing blue color, it’s a real phenomenon. You can see it in a reactor pool at a nuclear reactor. The effect is due to particles going faster than the speed of light in water.

So the question is, what is the name of the phenomenon? Is it called the Putin process, the Cherenkov radiation, Sokolov-Ternov effect, or Oppenheimer scattering? Here’s a little hint. It’s named after a Russian scientist who first experimentally detected it. Write down your answers. You’ve got 15 seconds. Go.


ANNIE MINOFF: Five seconds remaining.



IRA FLATOW: “Beulah the Buzzer.” How many remember “Beulah the Buzzer”? Remember her? Yes. Times up. Let’s go to Team 3M first. Team 3M, what’s your answer? You said D. Oppenheimer scattering. Why did you say that?

MAN: F looks like– so because the particles are going faster than light in water, and so it’s some sort of scattering.

IRA FLATOW: OK. All right. And let’s go to this team. What did you write?

TIM: We said B.

MAN: Yes.


IRA FLATOW: I said not to shout out the answers.

TIM: Yes, yes. We said B.

IRA FLATOW: No one’s listening.

JAMES KAKALIOS: And the correct answer is B, Cherenkov radiation.


IRA FLATOW: Why Jim? Why is that the correct answer?

JAMES KAKALIOS: Right. So just as when a jet plane moves in air faster than the air can move, namely the speed of sound, it creates a shock front. Light travels actually slower in water than it does in air or the vacuum of space. And so when a charged particle such as an electron travels faster than light can travel, it creates a shock front, and emits ultraviolet and violet and blue light. And what we see is the blue light. It’s basically a photon sonic boom that’s being created by the electrons traveling faster than light can travel in the water.

IRA FLATOW: And that’s why the fact that he’s blue.

JAMES KAKALIOS: Well, and perhaps he should consider putting some clothes on.


IRA FLATOW: That’s above our pay grade to decide that. All right, Annie, what’s the score?

ANNIE MINOFF: 3M is trailing with zero points, and Convergence is in the lead with one point.



IRA FLATOW: After the break, more of our Super Friday Superhero Quiz, recorded live in St. Paul, Minnesota. We’ll be right back after this short break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Now back to the Science Friday Superhero Quiz recorded live at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Physicist James Kakalios is our judge. Teams from 3M and sci-fi super fans are battling it out on stage. Producer Annie Minoff is the official time keeper and scorekeeper. And since this is radio and you can’t see the stage, I’m going to pop in here and there to fill you in as needed.

Now on with the show.

This is our live Science Friday Superhero Quiz. Let’s go on to question number two. Don’t forget, they get to be worth more points. Here’s is question number two.



Thank you. Thank you. Paid a lot of money for that ding. We gotta use it. Now that we looked at radioactive scientists, what about radioactive turtles? I know you’re ahead of me on this. Don’t get too far ahead of it. You all remember Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, right? And in this clip, Master Splinter shares the origin of the crime fighting turtles.


-When we were forced to come to New York, I found myself for the first time without a home, wandering the sewers, scavenging for whatever I could find. And then, one day, I came upon a shattered glass jar and four baby turtles. The little ones were crawling into a strange glowing ooze from a broken canister nearby.

I gathered them up in an old coffee can. And when I awoke the next morning, I received a shock. I was amazed at how intelligent they seemed. But nothing could have prepared me for what happened next. One of them spoke.

-Pizza. Pizza.



IRA FLATOW: That’s what I would have said after crawling out of the ooze.

JAMES KAKALIOS: In the sewer.

IRA FLATOW: In the sewer.

JAMES KAKALIOS: Maybe that’s pizza rat.

IRA FLATOW: Their pizza rat. That’s right. Absolutely. You know. The rats seemed to be like the Yoda from old days.

This September, biologist David Gruber actually spotted a glowing turtle swimming in the Solomon Islands. But the glow was not caused by radioactive ooze, I’m happy to say. And here’s the question. Now to repeat, Dr. Gruber shined a UV light on the turtle. Its shell is able to absorb the blue photons, transform it, and emit it back as yellow.

What is the name of this process? Is the answer bioluminescence, radioactive decay, turtle [INAUDIBLE], biofluorescence. You have 15 seconds starting now.


MAN: You’re the biologist.


ANNIE MINOFF: Five seconds remaining.



IRA FLATOW: Markers down. The two most feared words in school, right?


Pencils down. All right. Let’s see. We’re going to start with Team Convergence this time. What’s your guess? You’re going to guess?


IRA FLATOW: D, which is biofluorescence?

TIM: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: OK. Any reason why you chose that?

BRIANNE: I thought it was A or D. But luminescence would be like, self-emitting, and fluorescence is a reaction with another light.

JAMES KAKALIOS: Wow. You should be sitting in the seat here. Gee.

BRIANNE: We’re see if it’s right.

IRA FLATOW: Told you steam got the A for the stem there. What was your answer?

AINSLEY GRANT: We said D as well.

IRA FLATOW: For what reason did you say D?

AINSLEY GRANT: Similarly that luminescence is like glowing, versus fluorescence is like, emitting.

IRA FLATOW: Jim Kakalios?

JAMES KAKALIOS: And the correct answer is D, biofluorescence.



JAMES KAKALIOS: For exactly the reason they said, that when something fluoresces, you shine light on it, and then it emits a different type of light. That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Wow.

JAMES KAKALIOS: And the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are, of course, a great inspiration. They provide an example, as if we needed another example, of the positive benefits of wallowing in radioactive waste.


IRA FLATOW: I know. They’re stars at Chernobyl. So, uh–


All right, Annie. What’s the score?

ANNIE MINOFF: Well, 3M has two points, and Convergence is still slightly in the lead with three.

IRA FLATOW: Whoa. Whoa. All right. Let’s move on to question number three. This is worth three points.


All right.

JAMES KAKALIOS: Money’s worth.

IRA FLATOW: This next question comes from the X-Men. Cyclop’s mutant superpowers lets him blast optic beams from his ruby quartz lenses, obliterating, as I say obliterating, anything in its way. Shooting beams from your eyes like a high-powered gun might work in the X-Men universe, but in this scene, Cyclops defies a law of physics here in our world. We want to know what the law of physics does Cyclops break in this scene? Tell us what is inaccurate, scientifically inaccurate, in this clip.


-Shoot on sight.


IRA FLATOW: You might remember this scene. A group of X-men are chased by gunmen and cornered. Cyclops, guided by Emma Frost, runs out and blasts an optic beam, taking out a huge glass window and all of the gunmen.



-Did I get him?



IRA FLATOW: Whoa. If I had to answer that question, I’d say they never run out of bullets. That’s got to be scientifically inaccurate. The question is, what is scientifically inaccurate in the clip that we just saw? What scientific principle is being violated?


IRA FLATOW: There you go. 15 seconds. Go.


TIM: Is it our turn?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, everybody write it down.

JAMES KAKALIOS: Both of you.

ANNIE MINOFF: Five seconds remaining.



IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s go to this team, the Convergence Team first. What is being violated?

TIM: Newton’s third law, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

IRA FLATOW: What do you guys think in the audience? Yeah?


TIM: Yup. Yup. I would say that’s right.

IRA FLATOW: Let me ask this team.

MAN: We were thinking of the First Law of Thermodynamics, about creating energy.

IRA FLATOW: The creating energy out of no energy?

MAN: Yes.


IRA FLATOW: Out of their eyeballs?


AINSLEY GRANT: His eyeball. Eyeball.

IRA FLATOW: What’s that? One eyeball.

AINSLEY GRANT: He’s a cyclops.

IRA FLATOW: That’s right. You see how much I follow this.



JAMES KAKALIOS: Well, that’s actually a good point. But certainly the superpowers themselves violate conservation of energy on a regular basis. And I was thinking more in a mechanistic point of view about conservation of momentum in the third law. I might have to say I’ll give it to both of them.

IRA FLATOW: Both of them. OK.

JAMES KAKALIOS: I’ll have to do a judge’s call.

IRA FLATOW: Because if they really shot those things out of his eyes that quickly, he’d be shot across the room.

JAMES KAKALIOS: He obviously has two superpowers, force beams from his eyes and exceptionally strong neck muscles.

IRA FLATOW: OK. You don’t hear about that very much. OK. Annie what’s our score?

ANNIE MINOFF: Well, 3M has five points now, Convergence still slightly in the lead with six.

IRA FLATOW: Whoa. So we now move on to what could be a tiebreaker. You can still come from behind. We move on to question number four, which is worth four points. It’s anyone’s game.


IRA FLATOW: Here we go. Here we go.


When Scott Lang, also known as Ant-Man, puts on his special suit, he can shrink down to this size of an ant while still keeping in his human strength. I know you’re asking why turning tiny would come in handy, right? That’s what asked. Well, in this clip, you’re going to see one of the reasons.




IRA FLATOW: In this scene, Ant-Man in his tiny size leaps onto the barrel of the gun of the bad guys. He jumps onto a model of the city, and he speeds between miniature skyscrapers, dodging bullets along the way.



IRA FLATOW: That’s not supposed to be funny. You’re all laughing.


This guy’s running away for his life.

JAMES KAKALIOS: That was stupid scary.

IRA FLATOW: This is pretty scary, and not only– like the budget for broken glass in Hollywood movies is something. Must be exorbitant. Now, the question is, the final question is, we want to know, how far can Ant-Man jump according to physics?

Let me give you some stats. Scott was originally 6 feet tall and has been shrunk to half an inch. That means he is 1/144 his original size. That’s 1 over 144. And remember, he keeps his human strength at this tiny size. So knowing that, how far could Ant-Man command jump and why?

Here are your choices. A, he would be able to jump the same distance as normal size Scott. B, he would be able to jump 1/144, or 1/144 the distance of normal Scott. C, he would be able to jump 144 times further than normal Scott. 15 seconds starts now.


ANNIE MINOFF: Five seconds remaining.



IRA FLATOW: Time’s up. Let me ask the audience– everybody’s done writing down? Audience, what do you think?


C, B? Who said C?


IRA FLATOW: C? Who says B?


IRA FLATOW: Who says I don’t know.


IRA FLATOW: Well, there you go. There you go. Most of the audience.


All right. Let’s go over to the 3M side this time. What are have you guys–

MAN: We were guessing A.

IRA FLATOW: You’re guessing A? Just a guess? You had the support in the audience there for A. Just a guess. OK. Let’s go over to you guys. What do you think?

TIM: We guessed C.

IRA FLATOW: C because?

TIM: Because he can jump– he has the same strength, but he’s considerably lighter when he’s that small.

IRA FLATOW: Oh. Jim Kakalios.

JAMES KAKALIOS: OK. But the question is, what do we mean by strength? Right? When you lift something up, you’re using your muscles. The strength of your muscles comes from their cross-sectional area. If he’s shrunk down, he’s got much smaller muscles. But then, of course, his mass is much lighter when he’s reduced.

Presumably, he reduced at constant density, so that when he sits on an ant, he doesn’t squish the ant. Makes antony paste or anything. So his muscles are weaker at a reduced size, but his mass is reduced. And so if you could jump several feet when normal size, an aunt can jump several feet.

We think if you could scale the ant up to a human size, you’d be able to jump several stories. But really what you’d be able to do is still jump several feet. So the correct answer is A.



Wow. That was a guess? Pure guess?

MAN: Right.

IRA FLATOW: Pure guess. Better to be lucky than good sometimes.

MAN: Yeah, that’s what you were thinking. Yeah, right.

IRA FLATOW: I know it works on the SATs for me. You know? That was it. Annie, what’s the final score?

ANNIE MINOFF: Well, 3M has pulled into the lead with nine points. And Convergence earned six.

IRA FLATOW: The winner, 3M.


And remind us, Annie, what the fabulous prize they’re going to walk home with is.

ANNIE MINOFF: Well, the winners will get a Sci Fri swag bag with a Sci Fri t-shirt and tote bag.

IRA FLATOW: Whoa. Thank you all. Thanks, James Kakalios.

JAMES KAKALIOS: Thank you. Pleasure.

IRA FLATOW: For giving us a lesson in superhero science, fact, and fiction. Let’s congratulate both of our teams for playing.


That was Science Friday’s live Superhero Quiz, recorded at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota last fall.

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