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‘Physics of Superheroes’ author to kick off 2020 Science Festival

James Kakalios is the 2020 Science Festival keynote speaker.

James Kakalios is the 2020 Science Festival keynote speaker.

James Kakalios first started thinking about the physics of superheroes while writing an exam for one of his classes.

Kakalios—a professor of physics at the University of Minnesota who will be the keynote speaker during Randolph’s annual Science Festival later this month—wanted to create a problem that hadn’t been repeated endlessly before, he told Radio Prague International in 2018.

So he zeroed in on an iconic comic book storyline, the 1973 death of Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy, and how it “would be a perfect illustration of momentum and impulse.”

His students loved it, and in 2001, Kakalios created a freshman seminar class at the University of Minnesota called Everything I Know About Science I Learned from Reading Comic Books.

“These characters speak to something basic,” Kakalios said in the interview with Radio Prague when asked about the enduring popularity of superheroes. “ … We all have powers. We all have gifts and talents. How we choose to use them—selfishly, for our own personal gain, or to help others—determines the stories that we’re in. These comic books can tell engaging stories and then at the end of the story the bad guy gets punched [laughs]. How great is that?”

Kakalios’s class eventually led to the release of his book The Physics of Superheroes in 2005, followed a few years later by its Spectacular Second Edition. He also served as a science consultant on the superhero films Watchmen (2009) and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012).

Now he’s bringing his knowledge to Randolph for SciFest, which kicks off Saturday, March 14, with the annual Pi Run.

Kakalios will lead an open class from 12:15 to 1:15 p.m. Thursday, March 26, followed by his keynote address that evening at 7:30 p.m. Both will be held in Wimberly Recital Hall; registration is required for the class by emailing psheldon@randolphcollege.edu, but not the keynote.

"The Physics of Superheroes," by James Kakalios

“The Physics of Superheroes,” by James Kakalios

His participation in the festival was made possible through a grant Peter Sheldon, a physics and engineering professor and head of SciFest, recently received from the American Institute of Physics. In addition to bringing Kakalios to campus, the grant includes funding for a quiz bowl competition for high school students, a new addition to SciFest this year.

The quiz bowl still has openings for more teams of four to five high school students. Sheldon says it will be informal—“a fun, ‘Jeopardy’-style competition”—with no expertise in physics required. To sign up, visit http://randolphscience.org/physics-phest.

Other highlights of the festival include:

  • A screening of ANTHROPOCENE: The Human Epoch, a documentary about the impact humans have had on the planet, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 25, at the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College.
  • A Women in Science Panel, featuring alumnae who have been successful in their fields, from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. Friday, March 27, in Nichols Theatre, preceded by a reception for the panelists from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. in the Center for Student Research. Panelists include Debra Daugherty ’85, a senior health communications specialist at Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Michaela Saunders ’17, ’19 M.A.T., a science teacher at the Empowerment Academy; and Laura Word Taylor ’13, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental science and engineering at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
  • The reception is being held in conjunction with the center’s open house, which also includes displays of student research and refreshments, in Room 137 in Main Hall.
  • The Poetry Jam Reading and Awards Ceremony, featuring students who submitted science and math-related poems, will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 27, in Wimberly Recital Hall.
  • Marc Ordower, a Randolph math professor, will discuss some of the science featured in Avengers: Infinity War during the annual A Scientist Goes to the Movies presentation, set for 8 p.m. Friday, March 27, in Nichols Theatre.
  • Science Day will be held on Saturday, March 28, featuring hands-on activities for children in third through sixth grade from 11:45 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Randolph College Nursery School will also host Science Day for Little Scientists, for ages 3 to 7, throughout the day. Registration is required for both events.
  • The Glow Stick Star Party runs from 8:30 to 10 p.m. Saturday, March 28, in Winfree Observatory, offering visitors the chance to check out the stars through the observatory’s telescope. Refreshments and free glow sticks will be available.
  • The annual Maker Faire Lynchburg, presented by Vector Space, features a wide variety of makers—from engineers and scientists to artists and crafters—sharing their hobbies, experiments and projects from noon to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, March 29, in Main Hall, the Student Center, and Martin Science Building. Registration is recommended and also enters you to win door prizes.
  • The FIRST LEGO League Junior Expo runs from 12:30 to 4:30 p.m. Sunday, March 29, in Smith Memorial Building. It offers students age 6 to 10 the chance to practice and showcase their engineering skills by building a LEGO model and a poster addressing this year’s challenge, “Boomtown Build.” It’s free to observe the competition and costs $60 to register a team (scholarships are available). Visit http://randolphscience.org/fll/ for more information.
  • The Science + Art Saturdays Reception will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 29, in Martin Science Building, where high schoolers who participated in Randolph’s Science Saturdays program will be recognized in an award ceremony. More information about the free program can be found at randolphcollege.edu/sciencesaturdays.

The full 2020 SciFest line-up can be found at http://randolphscience.org/scifest.



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