Somewhere Isaac Newton must be smiling—even if he's a tad perplexed to see his laws applied to Science in Comic Books, a seminar Kakalios, 44, devised to make physics accessible—even enjoyable. "It's one thing to say, 'Force equals mass times acceleration.' We actually do stuff with it," says Kakalios. A lifelong comics devotee, he started the course in 2001, addressing such brainteasers as "How fast must Superman travel to leap a 660-ft. building in a single bound?" (140 mph) and "Could the Flash vibrate himself free if Captain Cold trapped him in a block of ice?" (Yes. The kinetic energy would melt the ice.)
Students consider Kakalios super-heroic. "The class is one of the things that convinced me to come to Minnesota," says engineering major Jay Plath, 19. The Queens-born professor had forsaken comics in high school after "discovering girls" but found escape in his old hobby as a stressed-out University of Chicago grad student. Now a married father of three, he devours four comic books a week—all in the line of duty. "A dirty job," Kakalios says, "but somebody's gotta do it."