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James Kakalios is not a superhero and hasn't played one on TV -- although he did appear in a featurette on the "Watchman" DVD. But the University of Minnesota professor, who became a geek pop star with his book "The Physics of Superheroes," would like to think he's a super-teacher of sorts.
Still, the 1950s B-movie cover of his just-released "The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics" ($26, Gotham, 336 pages) makes it clear that this is not your basic textbook.
"My goal," Kakalios said, "is not to teach someone how to become a quantum mechanic. It's to show how these principles developed in the 1920s and got us to where we are now. How does a TV remote control work, or a hard drive in a computer, or Blu-ray DVDs."
The Queens native, 51, hopped across the country, getting degrees from City College of New York and the University of Chicago and working at Xerox until deciding that he had "had enough of those California winters" and landed at the U in 1988.
Determined to make seemingly complicated principles accessible for students, he launched a freshman seminar called "Everything I Needed to Know About Physics I Learned From Reading Comic Books" in 2001 and published "The Physics of Superheroes" in 2006.
Q Is the new book aimed at a different audience than "The Physics of Superheros"?
A No, it's basically the same audience. It's not for scientists and engineers. The premise is here we are, in the 21st century. We were promised jet packs and flying cars, and what we got was cell phones and laptop computers.
In the 1950s, different groups of scientists developed the transistor and the laser. A generation after that, we had CD players and Blu-ray DVDs, iPods and iPads, pretty much everything my kids would say without which life is not worth living. None of this was possible without quantum mechanics. And the people who did this were driven by wanting to understand how things work.
Q After the buzz over "The Physics of Superheroes," was it at all confining when it came time to do a follow-up?
A No, not really. If anything, it was liberating in that you get to indulge yourself in these interests. In the new book, I describe the Gilbert atomic kit that had a comic book depicting how Dagwood [of the comic strip "Blondie"] learned to split the atom. It used other comic-book characters, and it was co-written by scientists and is all very accurate. And, hey, I'm actually writing a physics book where I'm expected to do that.
Q Do you have a secret power?
A No! [He laughs.] Procrastination -- perhaps, a gift for distraction.
Q Who have been your real-life heroes?
A As a kid, I was really enamored of scientists. I'm old enough to remember watching Walter Cronkite on "The 20th Century" and "The Ascent of Man" with Jacob Bronowski.
To find out how the world works, to solve the riddles posed by nature, is really fun. I've heard it said that scientists and baseball players are people who get paid to do work that they would do for free.
Q Have you gotten grief from your physics peers about going the pop culture route?
A You would think so, and I was a little afraid of that myself. But it really hasn't turned out to be the case. Maybe these books have come out at a time when there's a growing realization that we scientists need to do a better job of reaching the public. The people who were disparaging Carl Sagan are lamenting, "Where is the next Carl Sagan?" Anyone who can speak to those outside the choir is not to be denigrated.
People are not anti-intellectual; they're anti-snobbery. They don't want to be told they're wrong for liking something, whether it's NASCAR or science or baseball or comic books. Our job is to leverage their interest in pop culture to show them how cool science is.
Bill Ward • 612-673-7643