James Kakalios wins 2016 Gemant Award from AIP

July 22, 2016

WASHINGTON, D.C., July 22, 2016 -- James Kakalios, a successful book author and accomplished physicist at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, is the winner of the 2016 Andrew Gemant Award, an annual prize recognizing significant contributions to the cultural, artistic or humanistic dimension of physics, the American Institute of Physics (AIP) announced today.

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 North Minneapolis, 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 communicating science to the public using superheroes. 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.

James Kakalios received his Ph.D. in 1985 from the University of Chicago and is the Taylor Distinguished Professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota, where he has taught since 1988. His scientific research in experimental condensed matter physics concerns the properties of complex and disordered systems. His class "Everything I Needed to Know About Physics I Learned from Reading Comic Books" is a popular freshman seminar. After extensive media coverage of this class sparked a flood of interest, Kakalios responded to requests that he write a book based on the class. This led to the publication of "The Physics of Superheroes," which has since been translated into German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and Korean. A "Spectacular Second Edition" was published in 2009 and in 2010 he published "The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics." He has served as the science consultant for the Warner Bros. film "Watchmen," and consulted in 2012 on the Sony film "The Amazing Spider-Man." Besides teaching and writing, Dr. Kakalios is active as a public speaker and science consultant.


The Andrew Gemant Award is given to one individual by the AIP Governing Board each year, based on the recommendation of an outside selection committee, for significant contributions to the cultural, artistic or humanistic dimension of physics. For more information, see: http://www.aip.org/aip/awards-and-prizes/gemant


The American Institute of Physics is a federation of scientific societies in the physical sciences, representing scientists, engineers, educators, and students. AIP offers authoritative information, services, and expertise in physics education and student programs, science communication, government relations, career services, statistical research in physics employment and education, industrial outreach, and history of the physical sciences. AIP publishes Physics Today, the most closely followed magazine of the physical sciences community, and is also home to the Society of Physics Students and the Niels Bohr Library and Archives. AIP owns AIP Publishing LLC, a scholarly publisher in the physical and related sciences. http://www.aip.org

American Institute of Physics

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