Suit Up: A Sit Down with the Superhero Scientist
by Zachary Kam
Who has better equipment available to them, Batman or Inspector Gadget? Is language enough to describe the characteristics of God? What caliber of ammunition would be best to destroy the medulla oblongata of a brain-hungry zombie? If these or other questions like them have plagued you and your friends for years and the situation feels helpless, have no fear, Dr. Michael Dennin is here!
The Dean of the Division of Undergraduate Education and Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning isn’t stiff, like his titles might make him seem. He’s the co-host of a YouTube channel and a frequent guest on The History Channel’s show, “Ancient Aliens.” Dennin has been published numerous times in scientific journals and released his first book last year. More importantly though, he’s an incredibly amiable, relatable man who is passionate about a great number of things. There is a prominent theme throughout his interests, and that is his love for teaching and making complex subjects accessible to those who want to learn.
Dennin’s book “Divine Science: Finding Reason at the Heart of Faith” has been well-received. While it does take a look at religiosity through the lens of science, it is aimed at strengthening the convictions of believers.
“I made the decision to write it for people of faith who are concerned about whether or not science is something they can accept and understand and explore,” Dennin explained.
However, despite its target audience, it is an interesting read for nonbelievers as well. In the book, Dennin combines scientific parallels to theology in an informative and comprehensive way that still manages to be fun.
In 2013, UCI was approached by an online learning platform to teach in a multidisciplinary, massively online open course that taught its curriculum through the lens of AMC’s hit show “The Walking Dead.” It was obvious to the administration that they should utilize Dennin, who had spent the better part of the previous decade making a name for himself as the first Professor of Superhero Science and had taught the school’s first fully-online undergraduate course that counted for credit.
The course was massively successful, ending its eight-week session with 65,000 students, the largest to date. A more important statistic is that, of the 12,000 students who responded to a survey after the course was finished, 80 percent of them said they were better equipped to survive a zombie apocalypse. While there are not yet plans to execute another course of this magnitude, Dennin expressed interest in doing a similar course that revolves around the worlds of either “Star Wars” or Harry Dresden.
If his book and his courses aren’t enough, Dennin is available online 24/7 as a co-host on the YouTube show, “Fascinating Fights.” Daniel Glenn and Lauren Mayhew act as the permanent co-hosts along with Dennin as they discuss who would win in a fight between beloved fictional characters. Dennin plays the role of the superhero scientist while Glenn is the creator and self-proclaimed analytical mastermind. Mayhew is the combat expert. These dreamed-up duels range from nostalgic to cute, such as Wile E. Coyote versus Tom Cat (of “Tom and Jerry” fame), to showdowns between fantasy world titans: Gandalf versus Dumbledore. The show is lighthearted and genuinely silly; it’s clear that the hosts would enjoy talking about these things even if there were no cameras rolling.
One particularly interesting episode in the realm of physics was the battle between The Flash and Nightcrawler. The discussion included problems like the speed of light and the nature of transportation; common topics for most people in their spare time.
Dennin thought it was pertinent to describe how he decided upon his major when he was an undergrad. His choices were history, math, and of course, physics. He recalled how history classes were less sequential and therefore easier to take what interested him while majoring in something else. He found math interesting, but he lacked the ability to do math proofs well.
“And so, by the process of elimination, I ended up a physics major,” Dennin explained, half laughing.
His message to students is to “figure out what you’re going to take the most courses in, and that’s probably what you should major in. They will all get you a job. No one believes that. No parent believes that, which makes it worse.” If you don’t believe him, you’re invited to watch for information about the series Conversations with the Vice Provost, where this year they can schedule time to talk to him about any subject.
Last year, the questions ranged “from very serious questions about inclusive excellence and climate” to fun questions such as whether he prefers cats or dogs. So, if you have questions about the nature of God, the pros and cons of bringing kryptonite to a fight against Superman, or what degree you should pursue, it’s time to suit up and take a few minutes to talk to the superhero scientist.