In 2016, I stumbled across a book called “The Physics of Superheroes” by James Kakalios at Barnes & Noble.
The book was an adaptation of a freshman-level course Kakalios taught at the University of Minnesota. In it, Kakalios illustrates basic concepts in mechanics, thermodynamics, and even quantum and solid-state physics using examples pulled directly from comic books. Spider-Man stands in for the classic pendulum on a string. Electro and Magneto showcase the fundamentals of electromagnetism. Figuring out the Flash’s dietary requirements is a lesson in energy conservation. The book is thorough, accessible to people who’ve never taken a college-level science class—and a lot of fun.
After finishing it, I wrote down the title in a little black notebook with a smiley face next to it. And then I bought two more copies: one for my Marvel-loving physics major friend Jaclyn, and one for my cousin Zach, who also loved superheroes and was about to start his undergrad studies in engineering.
The little black notebook was a product of my ‘lost year” between undergrad and grad school. Unsure of what I wanted to do with my BS in Chemistry but pretty sure it didn’t involve becoming a professor, I’d decided not to apply to PhD programs as a senior in college—a move that surprised some, considering that I was one of the top students in my cohort (GPA-wise, the top student, although I was to quickly learn how little that mattered). Instead, I ended up moving back to my hometown of Midland, Michigan (you might have heard of it, as it recently flooded) to work at Dow Chemical as a lab tech and figure out what I ought to do with my life.
One of the things that brought me to continuing my education, and then three years later quitting again (more on that later) was my year-long dive into the power of science and story.
It started with, of all things, a badly written Black Widow novel that Jaclyn bought for me for Christmas my senior year of college. It used a hand-wavy “quantum entanglement” as justification for one main character’s psychic link to another main character. I distinctly remember laughing about its ridiculousness to Jaclyn in her kitchen during our usual Wednesday night dinner (this was also the semester when I took quantum chemistry, so the real science was fresh in my mind).
That book was the first entry on a list I began compiling of good, bad, and ugly works of fiction featuring science and scientists. I also kept a sister list of nonfiction popular science books I’d read and whether or not I liked them.
Some standout entries and what I remember about them:
“The Chemist” by Stephanie Meyer: My friend Erin gave this to me. What passes for science in this book is very “Hollywood.” I’ve never personally met any real-life scientists who are also secret agents skilled in bioweapons and torture, but I’m sure if such a person existed, their life would be…incredibly different from this book.
“Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren: There’s a reason everyone I know who read this book loved it. It’s beautifully written. I gained a new appreciation of trees.
"Dark Matter” by Blake Crouch: Promising and well-reviewed, but ultimately underwhelming. Like boiling a frog, this book gradually goes from almost plausible science fiction to multiverse insanity by the end. I halfway think that the plot got away from Crouch as he kept raising the stakes on his protagonist until the story finally collapsed under its own ambitious premise.
“A Short History of Nearly Everything” by Bill Bryson: Erin’s mom, a chemistry professor, recommended this one. Really impressive for a man whose body of work is mostly travel journalism.
“Chemistry” by Weike Wang: I should re-read this one. I think I’d have a new appreciation for it as someone who, like the protagonist of the book, left a prestigious graduate program after struggling with her mental health.
“A is for Arsenic” by Kathryn Harkup: Agatha Christie murder mysteries and toxicology—what’s not to love? A quick Google search has revealed Harkup has also written books about the science in Shelley’s Frankenstein and the various ways people die in Shakespeare plays. Awesome.
“The Martian” by Andy Weir: One of very few science fiction books that doesn’t make me want to slam my head against a wall. Also one of very few books where the movie adaptation is actually good.
These books my saving grace during a period of uncertainty and transition in my life. The nonfiction ones reminded me how much beauty and wonder science has to offer. Even the many pieces of bad science fiction I read whose plot can be summed up as “scientific innovation meant to help the world actually destroys it because of unforeseen side effects and/or hubris” had an impact on me, by illustrating that the world needs more fiction writers who can write about science without resorting to tired Hollywood tropes. That is, we need more people who know about science working in all sorts of media. (Maybe one day I really will write a comedic screenplay about my former labmates!)
Several networking conversations with professional science journalists revealed that for someone with my background (a BS in Chemistry, good undergrad grades, and no journalism experience to speak of), my best options for exploring a career communicating science to the public would require me to have an advanced degree. That wasn’t the only reason I decided to go to grad school, but it was a big one.
Once I got to grad school, though, I actually stopped reading whole books about science, preferring to escape to novels that didn’t remind me at all of my long days in lab. If I read science-y stuff that wasn’t scholarly articles related to my work, it was shorter newsy pieces from Science Magazine, Chemical & Engineering News, and whatever was making a splash on the weird and wonderful world of Science Twitter. Perhaps now that I’m between jobs, once again facing the prospect of moving back to Midland to save money, I should revisit “The Physics of Superheroes” and the other books that kept my interest in science alight after college.