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Why Spider-Man Should Just Take the Subway

When it comes to superhero movies, physics typically goes out the window. Think about some of the most successful movies of the past couple of years. Superman is basically a god who invalidates physics on a daily basis. Thor is, in fact, a god. Batman and Ironman are using technology so sophisticated, by Clarke’s Third Law, it may as well be magic.

But Spider-Man is something else. He’s a physics expert. His entire shtick — swinging from building to building — is one extremely complex differential equation that he’s, for all intents and purposes, intuitively solving in real time. You don’t need to be an engineer to understand what Spider-Man’s doing, you just need to have an intuitive sense of how pendulums work. That makes Peter Parker the quintessential mathematical superhero.

This sort of credibility has led to a ton of mathematical research analyzing Spider-Man that’s worth checking out, especially if you plan to see “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” which comes out in theaters Friday.

To start, watch this lecture from Emory University’s Skip Garibaldi, a mathematics professor, in which he describes the strength of Parker’s spider silk — tensile strength of 120 pounds per square millimeter — and how that relates to Spider-Man’s swinging strategy.

There’s also video of Jim Kakalios, a University of Minnesota physics professor who served as an adviser to the first “Amazing Spider-Man,” on the physics of web-crawling. For the film, Kakalios invented a fake-but-believable equation related to cell regeneration:

If you’ve got an hour and superhero physics is your thing, it’s almost mandatory that you watch this Kakalios lecture:

Finally, there’s been solid, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, academic analyses of Spider-Man, as seen in the 2010 paper “How Does Spider-Man Move So Fast?” The paper, by Ben Tippett of the Titanium Physicists Podcast, casts doubt on the utility of Spider-Man’s movement strategy. Tippet found that Spider-Man travels no faster than, say, a subway train in New York. Assuming a dynamic string — that means it stretches — Spider-Man’s maximum average velocity will be only 43 mph.

Even more interesting, Tippet examined the physics of a certain Spider-Man character falling off the George Washington Bridge and dying, a must-read for mathematically inclined Spider-Man fans or people willing to brave substantial spoilers.

Walt Hickey is FiveThirtyEight’s chief culture writer.