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.