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University of Minnesota physics professor Jim Kakalios teaches a class called “Everything I Know About Science I Learned from Comic Books.” He also wrote “The Physics of Superheroes” which Discover Magazine called the best science book of 2005.

I had the pleasure of meeting Jim at this years Comic Con where I attended his presentation “The Physics of Watchmen — or Why So Blue Dr. Manhattan.”

If you have ever seen Jim speak, you know he doesn’t give a dry science talk. He’s animated and funny and keeps the audience interested the entire time he’s speaking. But before we get into the details of Jim’s panel, let’s cover why he’s the authority to discuss the science of Watchmen.

Last summer Kakalios was speaking at an annual meeting of librarians when a woman from The National Academy of Sciences was setting up a program to match scientists with Hollywood. She came to Jim and said, “Have you heard about this movie, Watchmen?”

Eventually this led to my going out [to the set] before they started filming. They wanted all sorts of information. What did a physics lab look like in 1957? What would it look like in 1985? What does a real scientist’s black board look like? How do Dr. Manhattan’s powers work? How would this function, how would that function?

The idea, as Watchmen production designer Alex McDowell explained to Kakalios, was that “we want to know what’s around the corner at the end of the hallway even if the audience never goes down that corridor.”

Kakalios visited the Watchmen set back in August of 2007, and they told him not to tell anyone that he was there before he left. At the end of September 2007 he ran into the some of his colleagues who asked what he was doing lately. Upon hearing that Kakalios had consulted on Watchmen, one of his scientist friends P.Z. Meyers was so excited, he posted an entry on his science blog announcing Kakalios’ set visit. Jim told us he thought, “I’d rather it not be out of the bag like this but who reads a science blog?” Two days later, it was on many different Web sites:

Here’s to WatchmenComicMovie.com who had a little article about it. And in the forum, one of the people who posted there had one of my favorite comments ever. He said, “We’ve also not discussed the fact that Snyder maybe trying his hardest to legitimize a giant squid alien. Perhaps that is the purpose behind his team of scientists, artists, film crew… Oh shit. Snyder is going to kill millions! Audiences will be massacred on opening night by the very sight of Snyder's monster!

After his introduction, Kakalios got down to business explaining some of the science behind Watchmen with the aid of a PowerPoint presentation. Sound boring? Well, it wasn’t. Jim injected humor into his entire presentation and had the crowd laughing the whole time.

He discussed Rorschach’s mask, whose ink bolt patterns swirl around not unlike a lava lamp, and pointed out that the patterns don’t actually match the wearer’s emotions and are just “meaningless black marks.”

He also talked about the feasibility of a craft like Nite Owl’s Owlship being able to fly:

If the Owlship is flying above the city skyline it has to use energy at a rate of 4.4 megawatts. That’s like forty-four hundred houses. The energy that a house uses is roughly a kilowatt or so. If you wanted to fly, at that energy rate, all the way to Antarctica, you’d require nearly 5000 gallons of gasoline.

Then Kakalios delved into the complex task of explaining the physics behind Watchmen’s only super powered character, Dr. Manhattan.

To explain this, what John Osterman (Dr. Manhattan) is able to do; I have to now teach you Quantum Mechanics. I have only 10 minutes, which gives me a problem… What do I do with the other 8 minutes? Because you are the most perfect audience to learn Quantum Mechanics because you are already genetically predetermined to accept impossible, unrealistic statements. This crowd will not only believe a man can fly, they will believe that a pair of glasses is the perfect disguise.

See, I told you he was funny.

He moved on to explaining the science behind Dr. Manhattan. First — why is Dr. Manhattan such a “master of matter,” as actor Billy Crudup who plays the Doc in the upcoming film put it. Kakalios explained that each atom in the human body vibrates at a tiny wavelength. When you add them all together it makes up your total wavelength for you as a person. However, because humans are made of so many different atoms their wavelength is so small that it is completely undetectable.

He postulated that, Dr. Manhattan is able to adjust his wavelength at will. So, since Dr. Manhattan has independent control over his quantum mechanical wave function, and can control his quantum field at will, he’s able to rescale his wave function allowing him to become 50 feet tall, duplicate himself or do other fantastic things.

But here’s the big question that has plagued forums and message boards for years: Why is Dr. Manhattan blue? Kakalios’ speculated an answer to that question:

Could be because of an electromagnetic shock front which gives off energy in the ultraviolet or the blue portion of the spectrum. He has to reassemble himself on the removal of his intrinsic field. He is constantly generating, pulling up stray electrons out of the ground to keep his atomic balance right. Some of these electrons are leaking off creating drain off radiation. By adjusting how fast they’re going he can adjust the hue and intensity of his glow.

He added that this radiation “drain off" would be a great way to help someone prove that long exposure to the Doc could give people cancer.

At one point Kakalios had the whole crowd howling when he brought up a slide showing a comic panel of the naked Dr. Manhattan. He explained:

By the way I want to point out one thing that the comic book got accurate. We physicists are extremely secure in our masculinity.

Stay tuned to this site for an exclusive one-on-one interview with James Kakalios where I get more details about his set visit and some answers to some pressing Watchmen questions.

8.18.08 Source: WatchmenComicMovie.com

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