Science cafe hosts “Physics of Superheroes”

Last Thursday, Nov. 8, the Science and Math Institute and the Multi-Cultural Services departments of Bellevue College hosted an event to celebrate crazy science principles represented in superhero movies and comics. After a summer full of big-budget films like Marvel’s “The Avengers,” “Batman: The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Amazing Spiderman,” students may still be pondering particular stunts or capabilities of the characters.  The presentation included a physics demonstration to explain superhero’s actions, a film clip from “Spider-Man” and a student discussion of superhero powers.

SAMI partnered with the MCS to establish a search for a diverse group of students to participate in BC events. The purpose of the event was to “tell students not to be afraid of math and science. Being only slightly interested is okay,” said Regina Barber Degraaff, a physics instructor at BC. “We want to spark interest in the students. [The material] is totally accessible. You can do it,” she added, encouraging the students.

Kevin Wheelock, a physics instructor at BC, decided to include examples from the book “The Physics of Superheroes” by James Kakalios in his presentation. Setting the mood for the event, Wheelock wore his ‘Science Rules’ t-shirt.

To keep make the demonstration interesting, Wheelock decided to “grant the superheroes a miracle exception that allows them to keep their power without explanation.” “Now…what?” was the question he wanted students to meddle with.

Wheelock gave a lecture on Superman’s ability to “jump an eighth of a mile,” a concept introduced in the comic books. He showed students how to calculate the speed of Superman’s launch to the top of a 660-foot building from ground level. After showing students the equation by use of a tablet device connected to a projector, Wheelock came to the conclusion that Superman would have needed to leave the ground at approximately 140 miles per hour in a fourth of a second to vault the building.

Wheelock showed students the scientific process that explains the explosion of Superman’s home planet, “Krypton.” He claimed that a planet as large as Krypton could only be composed of the substance neutronium, a substance composed purely of neutrons. Neutronium is a rare, dense material found in the cores of neutron stars. Many scientists have claimed that one teaspoon of neutronium  weighs about a billion pounds. With a planet made of this substance, the planet would experience frequent earthquakes, tectonic shifts and the eventual explosion of the planet.

Wheelock showed a clip from “Spider-Man” to demonstrate a point about stopping falling objects. Mary Jane is thrown off of a fifty-foot building and plummets to the ground. If Spider-man scooped up Mary Jane from below, the force of impact would rip apart her body. Spider-man would have to fall from the same height with the same force to balance her speed to make a rescue. In the film “Spider-Man,” the scene is cut in a way that shows Mary Jane and Spider-man change their path of travel back upwards in less than a second. “Bless spider-man, because Mary Jane definitely would have died,” said Wheelock.

He also emphasized his uncertainties about Spider-man’s web. The distance that the web travels can be used to calculate the volume of the webbing exerted from his body. “Each time Spider-man spins out a web, he would loose about 2% of his body composition. After swinging from building to building through the city, his superpower wouldn’t last long. He’s a small guy,” said Wheelock. “This is science folks, and science rules,” he added.

SAMI hosts Science Café is hosted to give students an interactive way to apply the skills they learn in class. In the past, there has been an “Apocalypse” Café event. “Stop being intimidated by the complexity of science. Even if you know a lot about science like the instructors, there is still everything to learn,” said Baber-DeGraaff. SAMI is planning to host the third Science Café event on Nov. 29, which will be themed as “Zombie Bugs.” For more information about SAMI, visit the webpage at