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AICN interviews Dr James Kakalios - the Science Consultant on WATCHMEN! Seriously!

Dr. James Kakalios has been teaching and researching physics at the University of Minnesota since 1988. A comics fan, he created an extremely popular freshman seminar relating basic physics concepts to popular comic books and superhero movies. In May of 2002, on the eve of the release of Sam Raimi's first SPIDER-MAN feature film, Kakalios wrote an article in the Minneapolis StarTribune newspaper about a physics problem that had frustrated comics fans for two decades: What killed Peter Parker's girlfriend Gwen Stacy - the fall from atop the Brooklyn Bridge, or Spider-Man's web that stopped her just before she hit the water? The article was reprinted in newspapers and magazines - first across the country, then around the world. He was being interviewed ten times a day by radio and television stations all over the globe.

This newfound fame snowballed into a book deal, and now "The Physics of Superheroes" has sold through multiple printings in four languages. In addition to being the "Resident Rocket Scientist" on a local radio station and the go-to guy for comic book science questions in "Wizard" magazine, Kakalios landed a comic geek's dream come true: a job consulting with the production staff of Zack Snyder's WATCHMEN adaptation. Kakalios was delighted to be working with a team that paid so much attention to detail that their philosophy was, as stated, "We want to know what's around the far corner, even if we never walk down the corridor." I sat down with him this week to talk about his experiences. AICN: When did you first read Watchmen? Kakalios: Back in the late 1980's. I read it a collected graphic novel. I was hesitant for a while, paying something like $18 for a collection of comics, but eventually I had heard so much about it I broke down. I started off reading a chapter a night - but the last few chapters were read in a whirl at the end. AICN: How were you initially contacted to work on the film? Kakalios: I was giving a Physics of Superheroes talk at an annual meeting of librarians in Denver and made a contact from the National Academy of Sciences, who was starting a new project. This would eventually be known as the Science and Entertainment Exchange, officially launched last November. The National Academy would matchmake scientists and film/television producers who wanted to discuss the science behind a project, but would not know who to contact. I was called and asked if I was interested in talking to people making a motion picture based upon a comic book. "Sure - what's the comic?" I asked. "Have you ever heard of 'Watchmen'?" When I stopped vibrating like a gong, I said that I had, and was interested! AICN: Did you do work at home first, or did you fly up to Vancouver to get started? Kakalios: It started with conference calls with producer Debbie Snyder and production designer Alex McDowell and others, as I recall, and eventually with Zack Snyder. In the summer of 2007, they sent me a script and some conceptual artwork. We chatted some more, and they asked me to fly out to Vancouver in late August. AICN: How was the preproduction crew to work with? Kakalios: Wonderful. Everyone was extremely nice and outgoing. These are very busy people, and there is a lot riding on their work, yet they were interested in what I had to say and could not have been more pleasant to work with. AICN: Were they accepting of all your ideas? Kakalios: Yes. Of course, you understand that you could not step five paces at the studio in Vancouver without running into a copy of the graphic novel. This was the source, and if I said something was not right, but it was in the comic, they would go with the comic. If I were in their shoes, and had to worry about satisfying a million rabid Watchmen fans, or a physics professor from Minnesota, I know how I'd decide! One interesting aspect was they were interested in the psychology of science. Why would Dr. Manhattan say something or not question someone's motives? They enjoyed my reply: "If we were good at social interactions, we wouldn't have gone into physics! AICN: You've spoken of the Watchmen filmmakers' philosophy of "We want to know what's around the corner, even if we never go down the corridor." How did that effect the set design? Kakalios: Certain things such as what a physics lab would look like in 1959. What did it look like in 1985? At the start of the story we see Dr. Manhattan working on some device -- What could this be? They wanted to know how his powers could possibly work,even if the film never stopped to explain this. In this way they would fill in the layer beneath the surface, and do a better job of creating an artificial reality. I showed them images of various labs. they loved a shot of a theorist's blackboard. In "Hollywood science", blackboards have a variety of complicated equations that typically have no relation to each other or reason why they are on the board. In contrast, real theorists blackboards have complicated equations that are attempts to solve real problems...but also reminders about faculty meetings and to pick up milk on way home. AICN: How long did you work on the film? Kakalios: There was some prep work, a few days in Vancouver, and then occasional phone calls and e-mails. I was in Rome for the Italian release of my book in September of 2007, and I received an e-mail about the intrinsic field chamber. They noted that in the novel, we see the top of concrete block no. 15, but never what it is resting on. What would they use back in 1959 to support a test block? I had a very nice conversation with Billy Crudup about physicists and physics (He really knows his science, by the way!), and I next had a major involvement at the 2008 Comic-Con in San Diego. AICN: Which scientific concepts from the original comic did Moore and Gibbons get right, and what needed work? Kakalios: Well, no one in science calls it an "intrinsic field", but there is effort at seeing whether Electromagnetism, the Strong Nuclear, and Weak Nuclear Forces can all be combined into a single field. My memory fades, but I think I suggested a mechanism by which such a field could be removed, which involves creating a counter-field 180 degrees out of phase, as in sound isolation devices. They asked me how one could produce tachyons. I told them truthfully that if I knew, I would be on my way to Stockholm to pick up my Nobel Prize. I said not to worry about Dr. Manhattan saying that tachyons could be created in a giant nuclear explosion, as no one knows if they exist and how to create them, no one could prove it wrong! AICN: What did you come away with from working on the film? Kakalios: That there is a genuine and sincere interest in working with scientists in Hollywood. The people who create these films are very intelligent and have wide ranging interests. They are excited to work with scientists, and while their first responsibility is to tell an engaging story, if they at the same time can get some real science in there and promote the role of scientists in society - so much the better. --- The University of Minnesota has posted this video of Kakalios discussing the science behind "Watchmen" -- check it out!

Readers Talkback
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  • Feb. 24, 2009, 11:19 p.m. CST


    by DigitalBeachWar

  • Feb. 24, 2009, 11:20 p.m. CST


    by DigitalBeachWar

  • Feb. 24, 2009, 11:31 p.m. CST

    Very cool


    I enjoyed the parts of that that I understood.

  • Feb. 24, 2009, 11:36 p.m. CST

    Give this man a commentary track on the BRD!

    by MrD

    Not the only one, of course. Need one from Gibbons first and formost. Then Snyder, the writers and actors. And maybe one with other comic professionals talking about the book and film. Science man can get the last track, with other guys doing the technical work.

  • Feb. 24, 2009, 11:37 p.m. CST

    I don't know...

    by wampa 1

    ...but it sure smells good!

  • Feb. 24, 2009, 11:45 p.m. CST


    by Spifftacular Squirrel Girl

    Cool article guys and I want to second the request to give him his own commentary track on the dvd/blu-ray when it comes out.

  • Feb. 24, 2009, 11:57 p.m. CST

    Does the Doc Have a Blue Cock Too?

    by Read and Shut Up

    ...beware the rays, dude.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 12:01 a.m. CST

    What the fuck is a BRD, MRD?

    by Mr.Twist

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 12:07 a.m. CST

    Hey, I wrote this!

    by John Maddening

    Heh, I just sent this in, but no byline? I suppose it doesn't matter when I go by "433", but still... :)

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 12:09 a.m. CST

    so what did kill Gwen Stacey, the fall or the web

    by slder78

    I say the web, cause the idea of Spiderman killing her in the comic and Tobey Maguire killing the franchise by dancing with Gwen Stacey in the movie has a kind of symmetry to it. What? They want to make a 4th? Fucking hell.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 12:13 a.m. CST


    by John Maddening

    The point is that is didn't matter - if the web hadn't broken her neck, hitting the water at that speed would have been like hitting concrete.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 12:31 a.m. CST

    I believe he means Blu-ray Disc (BRD), Mr. Twist.

    by thebearovingian

    But it sure is fun as hell trying to figure out all the motherF-in acronyms and abbreviations these geek-ass nerds come up with on a daily basis at AICN b/c it's not like a string of letters could actually stand for anything else! Well, actually they could. An infinite number of different things. Okay, maybe not "infinite".<p>The headline should read "AICN intvws Dr. JK - SC on WTCHMN! Srsly!" Even that might be too texty, too easy to decipher.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 12:38 a.m. CST

    No one knows if tachyons exist? Please.

    by thebearovingian

    I know. They do. I've got three of 'em in my sock drawer. "Consultant", HA!

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 12:41 a.m. CST


    by Spifftacular Squirrel Girl

    Nice job with the article. <p> I'm kind of curious about some of his thoughts about some of the science behind Batman's gear (I know there was a special about this on Discovery or some other channel) or Iron Man's armor.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 12:49 a.m. CST

    OMFG! He referred to Watchmen as a 'comic book'!

    by thebearovingian

    It's a GRAPHIC NOVEL, Kakalios!<p>Hottie in the front row! Hottie in the front row!

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 1:34 a.m. CST

    Tachyons can be used to open TransWarp conduits.

    by Boomers_Lips

    I'm the ST:VOYAGER episode, 'Day of Honor'. 7 of 9 tried to modify Voyagers defector dish to open a transwarp conduit to get to earth.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 1:39 a.m. CST

    Boomers_Lips you NERD!!!!!

    by Spifftacular Squirrel Girl

    ...I think I remember that episode, actually.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 1:48 a.m. CST

    cloaked Romulan & Klingon ships emit tachyon radiation.

    by Boomers_Lips

    but by the time you figure it out, your ass is grass!

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 2:48 a.m. CST

    That girl in the front row in his class

    by Dingbatty

    that the camera lingers on, is a hottie.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 4:48 a.m. CST

    No, thebearovingian, it's a comic book ...

    by MorpheusTheSandman

    12, actually, later complied into a Graphic Novel ... Or was you just being ironic? :)

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 4:49 a.m. CST

    Compiled not complied ....

    by MorpheusTheSandman

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 5:48 a.m. CST


    by most excellent ninja

    epic post. People always said the shock of the fall killed her regardless. But spidey being inexperienced snapped her neck.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 7:47 a.m. CST

    I have it on good authority that...

    by shatnerd

    Dr. Kakalios will be played by Stephen Tobolowsky in Science of Watchmen II. scooooooooooop!

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 8:08 a.m. CST


    by BobParr

    I guess that dumb show is accurate. Science guys really are that geeky.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 8:48 a.m. CST


    by PTSDPete

    Damn straight.</p> Long live the professional Christian Bale thread !!</p>

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 9:46 a.m. CST

    Insultingly stupid movie physics.

    by Shan

    Read this site about movie physics, it's great. Particularly scathing about "The Core". <p>

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 10:43 a.m. CST

    Reminds Me of the Bees...

    by ericinwisconsin

    Comic book physics are like that comment about bees. Bees are not aerodynamic, and as such, cannot fly. But being bees, they don't know this and just keep flying on. <br /><br /> Of course, bees MUST be aerodynamic to fly. We just don't know how it works and our hubris is such that we cannot conceive that we are wrong. Thus, bees must NOT be aerodynamic and cannot possibly fly. <br /><br /> The point is that, if I saw Superman pick up a house and fly off with it, not destroying the structure, I'm not going to argue physics with him. I'm just gonna hope it's not MY house he's flying off with.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 2:14 p.m. CST

    Ok, that's just fucking cool...

    by Le Vicious Fishus

    More interviews like this, please.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 2:20 p.m. CST

    What killed Gwen Stacy?

    by Rufferto

    fucking the Goblin.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 2:54 p.m. CST

    Oh wait that was just Marvel

    by Rufferto

    fucking her corpse.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 2:54 p.m. CST


    by slder78

    Fair enough. Nevertheless, color me one of the few who was not all that impressed by Spidey's film franchise.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 3:14 p.m. CST

    re: Boomers_Lips

    by EverythingEverywhereStinks

    Forget everything you know about Star Trek "physics." JJ is fixing it! You Trekkies will have a whole new vocabulary to learn! Aren't you excited?!?!

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 3:55 p.m. CST


    by jarjarmessiah

    Are you named after Groo's dog?

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 4:17 p.m. CST


    by Rufferto

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 6:40 p.m. CST

    We do know how bees fly.

    by Jack Parsons In his 1934 French book Le vol des insectes, M. Magnan wrote that he and a Mr. Saint-Lague had applied the equations of air resistance to bumblebees and found that their flight could not be explained by fixed-wing calculations, but that "One shouldn't be surprised that the results of the calculations don't square with reality". This has led to a common misconception that bees "violate aerodynamic theory", but in fact it merely confirms that bees do not engage in fixed-wing flight, and that their flight is explained by other mechanics. In 1996 Charlie Ellington at Cambridge University showed that vortices created by many insects’ wings and non-linear effects were a vital source of lift; vortices and non-linear phenomena are notoriously difficult areas of hydrodynamics, which has made for slow progress in theoretical understanding of insect flight. In 2005 Michael Dickinson and his Caltech colleagues studied honey bee flight with the assistance of high-speed cinematography and a giant robotic mock-up of a bee wing.Their analysis revealed sufficient lift was generated by "the unconventional combination of short, choppy wing strokes, a rapid rotation of the wing as it flops over and reverses direction, and a very fast wing-beat frequency". Wing beat frequency normally increases as size decreases, but as the bee's wing beat covers such a small arc, it flaps approximately 230 times per second, faster than a fruitfly (200 times per second) which is 80 times smaller.

  • Feb. 25, 2009, 6:42 p.m. CST

    The Core was awesome...

    by Christopher3

    If only for coining the element "unobtanium."

  • Feb. 26, 2009, 1:23 a.m. CST

    Bees can fly because of the energy

    by Dingbatty

    generated by their excitement over finding some Honey Nut Cheerios.

  • March 2, 2009, 12:42 p.m. CST


    by Watchmenfan

    I just found the greatest contest for Watchmen fans like myself!! Enter this WATCHMEN Sweepstakes for a chance to win all sorts of cool prizes.