It began, as do many tales of travel, adventure, and triumph, with a librarian.

In June 2007, I was in Denver for the national meeting of the Special Librarians Association, to give a talk on my efforts using superhero comic books to teach physics. There I met a librarian from the National Academy of Sciences. Upon returning to DC, she passed my name along to Ann Merchant, who was in the early stages of setting up The Science & Entertainment Exchange program.

In August Ann called, having received a request for a science consultant from a superhero movie that was about to begin filming, asking if I would be interested. “Have you ever heard of Watchmen?” Ann asked. When I stopped vibrating like a gong, I replied that I was familiar with the graphic novel and would be happy to help out.

Now, I should explain that my excitement resulted from Watchmen, a 12-issue miniseries published in 1985, being considered by many fans as the Citizen Kane of superhero comic books. Director Zack Snyder, Production Designer Alex McDowell, and Art Director Francois Audouy took great care to make their film as faithful as possible to the graphic novel. If faced with a choice of antagonizing a million rabid Watchmen fans – or a physics professor from Minnesota – well, I know which choice I’d make (and I’m the physics professor from Minnesota!).

A conversation about science with Billy Crudup (aka Dr. Manhattan - pictured right), telephone calls, e-mails, and a set visit to Vancouver was the beginning of my consulting gig for Watchmen. But my real work as a physics professor began after filming had wrapped in the spring of 2008. As the filmmakers worked to edit and incorporate special effects in the film, I was asked by Warner Bros. to give a talk on The Science of Watchmen at the 2008 Comic-Con International in San Diego, California, an annual celebration of comics, science fiction, and fantasy that draws 125,000 fans over 4 days in July.

My talk "Why So Blue", Dr. Manhattan turned out to be effective in presenting real physics to the filled-to-capacity room of superhero and science fans. At one point in my discussion of the physics underlying the amazing powers that Dr. Manhattan possesses, I informed the audience that I now needed to teach them Quantum Mechanics. And I had 10 minutes. Which left me with a problem of what do with the other 8 minutes.

For Quantum Mechanics involves strange, fantastic propositions, and that this was the perfect audience to accept strange, fantastic propositions! They not only believed a man could fly, but that a pair of eyeglasses could serve as a fool-proof disguise as well! (A point I then emphasized by removing my own glasses.)

My big opportunity for science outreach came in February 2009, when the University of Minnesota Public Relations office asked if I would be interested in making a short video to be posted on the university’s page, discussing the Science of Watchmen. After securing approval from Warner Bros. (who graciously provided us with HD clips from the film, some of which had not yet been shown online), we shot the video in a morning and posted it a few weeks before the film opened nationwide. It was cross-linked on sites from Aint-it-Cool-News to Pharyngula, from Richard Dawkins to Roger Ebert, and received more than 1.5 million views within a couple of months. I doubt that I could get 1.5 people to view a straight video demonstrating the particle-wave duality that underlies quantum physics, but by tying it to the interest in and marketing of a major motion picture, people who came for the fiction would stay for the science.

And then, in August we learned that the video had been nominated for an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy award, in the Advanced Media: Arts/Entertainment category (hence the title of this post – upping the ante on Jerry Zucker’s first post on this site). The award ceremony would be September 26 at the Pantages Theater in downtown Minneapolis, and I resolved that I would be up on that stage – either to accept the award or to inform everyone that Beyoncé had the best video of all time!

The above was written prior to the Saturday evening ceremony. Having just returned from the gala, I now have a new item to add to my CV. I wonder if I can get the phrase “Emmy-laureate” into common usage? Let me close this post with my acceptance speech I gave that night:

“I’m Prof. Jim Kakalios. Don’t worry - I won’t be giving a lecture. I wish to thank Justin Ware and Elizabeth Giorgi at the University of Minnesota, who conceived and created this video, as well as Brian Andersson, who provided the physics demos we used. I would like to thank the Academy – both the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, and Ann Merchant, who put me in touch with the Watchmen crew, and everyone on Watchmen and at Warner Bros. for their first-class treatment of me. And I wish to thank my wife and family, for their love and support. I am a lucky man.”

Professor James Kakalios is a physics professor at the University of Minnesota. Known within the scientific community for his work with amorphous semiconductors, granular materials, and 1/f noise, he is known to the general public as the author of the book The Physics of Superheroes, which considers comic book superheroes from the standpoint of fundamental physics.

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