One professor’s spidey senses were tingling at the University Club this past Tuesday, May 19 when mild-mannered physics Professor Michael Dennin discussed “Foams and Superheroes: Physics of the Ordinary and Extraordinary” as part of the School of Physical Sciences’ Discover the Physical Sciences 2008-09 Breakfast Lecture Series.
Dennin’s presentation focused on critiquing the physics of superhero abilities, which he helpfully demonstrated with video from their silver screen adaptations, starting with Spider-Man’s webs and Superman’s time travel and flight capabilities.
In reference to “Spider-Man 2,” Dennin reasoned that Spider-Man has to shoot many webs to stop the momentum of a moving train. Dennin also argued that the changing of the Earth’s axis of rotation could not change linear time, as occurs in “Superman.” According to Dennin, Superman’s flight does not violate any fundamental law of physics, but is just a technological problem.
Dennin told the New University that particular comic books show how superheroes, such as the Hulk, the Fantastic Four and Dr. Manhattan from “Watchmen,” gain their powers from nuclear radiation accidents, a trend reflecting the fascination with nuclear power post-World War II. However, he believes that at the time of publication that writers did not have a firm understanding of the science being implemented into these fantastic stories.
“Any of those levels of radiation are [going to] kill you,” Dennin said.
Dennin also addressed the concept of the superhero without super powers, such as D.C. Comics’ Batman. Batman’s crime-fighting technology includes high-tech tools such as a cape that reacts to electrical signals. According to Dennin, engineers and scientists are researching “acted material” but have not yet seen results in the form of such a cape, which in the movie “Batman Begins” allows the titular hero to make his flowing cape rigid and use it to glide and slow his fall.
“With Batman, you’re always asking questions about technology,” Dennin said.
He also went on to address the sonar emitter seen in “Batman Begins,” noting the problem of attracting bats.
“The challenging thing is not making something that … attracts the bats for Batman,” Dennin said. “Are there any around to call in the first place?”
In the second half of the lecture, Dennin discussed the properties of matter and his research on foams, sharing videos with the audience.
Dennin conducted two demonstrations to illustrate his points, including his assertion that foams can act cohesively and become hardened using fast, freezing temperatures.
In one example, Dennin demonstrated that sand could flow as a fluid or support stress as a solid. To explain how sand can hold building structures, he inserted a paper towel rod into a bowl of sand. Then, after tapping the sand, Dennin pulled out a rod with sand attached to it. The transfer of energy from the tapping caused the sand to rearrange and trap the rod, exhibiting properties of a solid.
The other demonstration showed that corn syrup can act as a solid, possibly exhibiting liquid crystal property, preventing a splash when a person quickly drops a tube into a bowl composed of water and syrup.
In the lab tour of his foam research, Dennin explained how his three apparatus operate with the help of graduate assistants.
By referring to an apparatus with a central circular shape recorded by cameras and controlled by a computer, an onlooker asked Dennin, pointing to silver-colored compressors near the center, “Why do you need so many?”
Dennin replied, “It wasn’t clear how many you need [for the experiment], but what you want to be able to do is maintain a circle because, for the rotating part, the circle is [important]. Otherwise, you don’t have nice flow patterns. ”
Dennin commented on the applicability of his foam research to society in a follow-up interview.
“The two obvious ones, locally, are firefighting and oil recovery … both of those have to do with flowing foam,” Dennin said.
Dennin commented on the possibility of a future course on the science behind science fiction universes, such as “Star Trek” and “Star Wars.” Additionally, Dennin commented on his teaching style for freshman seminars, such as “The Science of Superheroes.”
“With the freshman seminars, it’s really important to have a good book at least in the style I [teach],” Dennin explained. “I [teach] where there is not much reading each week, [about] 10 to 20 pages at most, but you need a basis for discussion because I do no lecturing.”
The School of Physical Sciences sponsored the lecture series. Director of Communications Nicole Wilson commented on the selection process of speakers.
“Four faculty members, one from each department in the School of Physical Sciences, are invited to be speakers for the Breakfast Lecture Series each year. Dean John Hemminger makes his selection based on the faculty’s research and who he feels can present a lecture about their research that will be accessible to the lay public,” Wilson said.
Tom Boatwright, a graduate physics Ph.D. student and Dennin’s research assistant, commented on the professor’s public outreach skills.
“[Dennin is] very good at talking to the public. [He can explain] complex concepts well enough so that people can understand them without necessarily knowing the physics,” Boatwright said.
Dennin will be teaching an online course, “Physics 21: Science from Superheroes to Global Warming” during Summer Session I 2009.
Sunny Patel contributed to this article.