James Kakalios Wins 2016 Gemant Award from AIP
As a condensed matter physicist specializing in experimental studies of amorphous silicon, Kakalios is the Taylor Distinguished Professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy in the University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering. Outside his field, he is perhaps better known for his devotion to making physics fun and communicating science in an entertaining, easy-to-understand and even humorous way.
"We are thrilled to be able to give this award to Dr. Kakalios, who is an accomplished scientist, author and public speaker," said Catherine O'Riordan, chief operating officer at AIP. "Of all his notable achievements, both in and out of the laboratory, perhaps his greatest is to have inspired future generations to embrace science with passion."
The award includes a cash prize of $5,000 and a grant of $3,000 to further the public communication of physics at an institution of the winner's choice. Kakalios has named as the recipient of the grant Franklin Middle School, an innovative public school in Richfield, Minnesota that serves a predominantly minority and high-poverty student body.
A Mild-Mannered Professor by Day ...
Kakalios describes himself as "a mild mannered physics professor at a great metropolitan university" during the day, but in fact his research spans from the "nano to the neuro." His studies of noise in disordered semiconductors have recently been extended to studying voltage fluctuations in the brain, working with neuroscience researchers that could have implications for our understanding of Parkinson's disease.
As a fan of comic books and superheroes since childhood, Kakalios says his interest in combining science with superheroes and their powers culminated in the development of a Freshman Seminar class called "Everything I Needed to Know About Physics I Learned from Reading Comic Books," which became a phenomenon and garnered strong media interest. He makes physics fun and informative by folding physics principles into something accessible and entertaining—comic books and their heroes.
When asked why he chose this as a way to teach physics he responded, "I tried to enliven the class, periodically over the years, by bringing in examples from movies or comic books. And physics seems so dry to many students that the standard complaint is always, 'When am I ever going to use this in my real life?'"
But he noticed that by using comic book examples, "the students never wonder when they're going to use this in their real life." He concluded, "Even if you're doing things that are clearly unphysical—superheroes or movies—they realize that if you can apply the laws of physics there, well, then maybe they actually would work in the real world." Kakalios is also one of the few physicists to successfully collaborate with producers of major motion pictures, carefully walking the balance between the entertainment factors of the film while ensuring that the science was as accurate as possible.
The Gemant Award committee selected Kakalios for "his creativity in engaging broad audiences by passionately communicating cutting-edge science found in comic books and superhero movies through public lectures, books, and mass media presentations."
Kakalios will be presented with the award at the 2016 Quadrennial Physics Congress (PhysCon) in Silicon Valley, Sat., Nov. 5 at 6:30 p.m. PST at the Hyatt Regency-San Francisco Airport in Burlingame, California. He will also participate in a workshop earlier that day, on using superheroes to teach physics. PhysCon, sponsored by Sigma Pi Sigma, is the largest gathering of undergraduate physics students in the world and brings together physics students, alumni, and faculty members. More information: http://www.sigmapisigma.org/sigmapisigma/congress/2016/program.
Provided by American Institute of Physics