Who knew that Spider-Man could help you understand Newton’s laws of motion?

James Kakalios, a physics professor and author, does. He uses the adventures of superheroes to entertain passionate physics students and to attract those who are skittish about science.

Kakalios was invited to speak at Northeastern by the College of Science and the American Physical Society to kick off the APS’ annual meeting, which was held in Boston and included presentations from several Northeastern researchers.

Wearing an apropos Spider-Man tie, Kakalios regaled the audience with anecdotes from his popular book, The Physics of Superheroes. To elaborate on conservation of momentum, for example, he explored the death of Gwen Stacy, Spider-Man’s girlfriend, who meets her end in a fall from a bridge. But how could she have died when Spidey caught her in his webbing before she hit the water below?

The simple physics: By calculating Stacy’s velocity and weight, Kakalios concluded that the superhero’s webbing applied such a large decelerating force in such a short period of time that her neck snapped.

He also delves into materials science, describing how the strength and elasticity of real spider silk makes it conceivable that the superhero could stop a speeding train like he did in the movie Spider-Man 2. “Real webbing is stronger than steel cable and more elastic than nylon,” said the man of superhero science. “Superheroes get science right more often than you think.”