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'Pop' Physics Makes Science More Palatable - 2004-04-03

Many people consider physics too complicated, irrelevant and boring to comprehend. So a growing number of educators are tackling that impression through 'pop' physics.

A marching band plays fight songs as Husker fans at the University of Nebraska cheer on their football team. There's a pass! A tackle! Suddenly, the giant Husker Vision screens display, not an instant replay, but a man in a suit and tie, talking about science.

"A player's momentum is equal to his weight, or mass, times his speed," says Timothy Gay, who teaches at the University of Nebraska. His one-minute physics lectures are a regular feature of Husker games. Today's topic is the momentum of a tackle, and his video shows a stupendous one: a Husker slams into the Oklahoma receiver so hard, the player and his helmet go flying.

"Using Newton's second law, we can calculate the force of the hit to be about 2/3 rds of a ton. That's gotta hurt! Now let's use some momentum to move the ball down the field and score another touchdown," he explains.

Professor Gay has appeared in television programs around the world to explain American football. And that's not the only activity he studies. Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he recalled the woman who asked him about the physics of baton twirling.

"She said, you're really doing a good thing here, because you're bringing physics out of the den of nerds, into the light of day. And I'd always suspected that my colleagues and I worked in a den of nerds. But just to get it from a separate source was useful," he recalls.

At the Time Warp comic-book store in Boulder, Colorado, physics is far from the thoughts of the kids and college students flipping through glossy four-color adventures. "You don't get comics in order to look for science. You go to a science class. These are escapist kind of things," says a student.

A young comic fan says that physics homework usually involves calculating formulas like the momentum of a train. "Something where it's going so fast, we have to figure out the momentum of something or the speed of something."

But what if that something was not a train but Spiderman's girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, and the evil Green Goblin had just thrown her from the top of a New York City bridge? That's a classic storyline, and you might be wondering, can Spidey save her in time? Well, first, we need to calculate her speed.

"When Spiderman's girlfriend falls off the top of a bridge, how fast is she falling near the base? It turns out to be nearly 95 miles per hour. That's more than 150 kilometers an hour, really fast," says James Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota. He often asks students to calculate this speed, given the 90-meter height of the bridge, Gwen's weight, and the pull of gravity. Never mind how the Green Goblin got Gwen to the top of the bridge. Professor Kakalios says, that's superpower stuff.

"The superpowers themselves violate all the laws of nature as we know them," he says. "But if you grant the characters a one-time miracle exception, say, yes, you could run at super speed, then other things that happen in the story turn out to be fairly accurate."

Back to our story, Gwen's nearing top speed in her plummet toward the water. Spiderman's webbing catches her! But when he reels his girlfriend up, she's dead. It's a tragic moment, but realistic?

"We put in the numbers to see if whether what happens in the story line turns out to be physically accurate or not," says James Kakalios.

Given Gwen's speed when Spiderman's webbing catches up with her, Professor Kakalios says the sudden change in momentum probably snapped her neck. If only Spiderman had caught poor Gwen with an airbag, that would have absorbed the change in her momentum more gently, and the story might have had a happy ending. Professor Kakalios says he could explain Newton's laws of motion to his students with airbags alone - he tells his audience he'd rather not.

"The student's typical complaint is, 'When am I ever going to have to use this in my real life?' Interestingly enough, Whenever I use examples from comic books, students never wonder when they're going to use these in their real lives," says James Kakalios. "Apparently, they have plans after graduation that involve Spandex and patrolling the cities, which, as a law-abiding citizen, and knowing how many of my scientist colleagues are called mad, I take solace in."

Back at TimeWarp Comics, one high school science wiz says she's okay studying physics through normal, dry, mechanical examples such as incline planes and propellant systems.

But at the Husker game, 75,000 enthusiastic fans are enjoying Timothy Gay's one-minute physics lecture.

"If you can talk in terms of something they're interested in, like a Comic book or a football play, that really helps ease the barrier to them getting involved," he says.

Professors Gay and Kakalios shared their non-traditional approach to physics at the annual AAAS meeting in Seattle. They hope to inspire more physics professors to use examples from their students' real lives in their efforts to make the real world a more knowable place.