Comic book heroine teaches science

A superhero with laser powers helps make physics fun

Many comic books have characters that challenge everything we know about physics and biology. A man who heals from bullet wounds in seconds. A hero brought to his knees in the presence of a mysterious element. A heroine who carries a lasso that forces someone to tell the truth. While it can be fun to imagine how such abilities could exist, most comic book heroes defy science; they don’t teach it. The American Physical Society is trying to change that with Spectra.

Meet Spectra, a middle school student who just happens to also be a human laser. American Physical Society
Lucinda is an ordinary middle school student at Nikola Tesla Middle School. She likes to spend science class goofing off with friends. Then one day, she discovers a very personal connection with physics She’s a human laser! When the girl’s friends go missing, Lucy becomes the superhero Spectra. To save her friends, she uses her laser powers to fly, cut through walls and appear in many places at once.

Spectra’s adventures also illustrate important physics lessons. Each comic book provides science projects that go along with the story. Melting Hershey Kisses suggests how different metals conduct heat. Stirring ketchup into water shows what different viscosities —or the “thicknesses” of fluids — look like. Numbers and other data from each experiment provide the information that Spectra and her friends can use to save the world from the villain of the week.

The concepts might be confusing, however, without the aid of a lesson plan. Spectra saves the world with her laser powers. But the comic book never fully explains what a laser is, how diffraction works or why different wavelengths of light appear as different colors. The comic also refers to products that use lasers.  Yet it never actually shows how these products (such as iPods) make use of that technology. Having a teacher around to provide definitions and details will help readers glean the most from Spectra’s tales and the recommended experiments.

The American Physical Society developed the series, and produced the first issue in 2009.  There are now five issues to choose from. Spectra’s tales are free on its website. Teachers can also download a special (and free) edition. It provides directions for projects and classroom activities. Teachers who register with the site also can get a free classroom kit. It has additional materials to support the Spectra series. Classes that complete the activities can enter their answers online for a chance to win prizes.

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Power Words

conductive  Able to carry an electric current.

conductor  (in physics and engineering) A material through which an electrical current can flow.

diffraction  The bending of waves when they hit an object. The pattern produced by waves when they bend can be used to determine the structure of very tiny objects, such as the width of a human hair.

laser  A device that generates an intense beam of coherent light of a single color. Lasers are used in drilling and cutting, alignment and guidance, and in surgery.

physics  The scientific study of the nature and properties of matter and energy. Classical physicsAn explanation of the nature and properties of matter and energy that relies on descriptions such as Newton’s laws of motion. It’s an alternative to quantum physics in explaining the motions and behavior of matter.

viscosity  The measure of a fluid’s resistance to stress. Viscosity corresponds to the idea of how “thick” a liquid is. Honey is very viscous, for instance, while water has relatively low viscosity.

wavelength  The distance between one peak and the next in a series of waves, or the distance between one trough and the next. Visible light — which, like all electromagnetic radiation, travels in waves — includes wavelengths between about 380 nanometers (violet) and about 740 nanometers (red). Radiation with wavelengths shorter than visible light includes gamma rays, X-rays and ultraviolet light. Longer-wavelength radiation includes infrared light, microwaves and radio waves.

Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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