Superhero professor, James Kakalios, gets an honorary degree

On 7th of September 2017 Professor James Kakalios was awarded an Honorary degree of Doctor of Science by the University of Lincoln for his achievements in advancement and communication of physics.

Watch the graduation ceremony (rewind forward to 48.5 minutes):

Oration text (by Andrei Zvelindovsky):

Chancellor, Pro Chancellor, DVC, honoured guests, graduates, I am pleased to present to you Professor James Kakalios on whom the Governing Body has agreed to confer an Honorary Doctorate of Science.

City of Lincoln is connected to physics long before the word physics came into use. Early in 13th century, in this very cathedral, the Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Grosseteste, was probably the first in Britain who wrote on wonders of nature such as rainbow, light and formation of matter in the universe. Today we honour Professor Kakalios whose research is in the field of condensed matter physics, the main physics research direction of the school of mathematics and physics in the University of Lincoln.

James Kakalios is the Taylor Distinguished Professor in the University of Minnesota.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and worked as a researcher at the Xerox – Palo Alto Research Center in Silicon Valley before joining the faculty of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota.

James Kakalios has advanced physics not only in research but also in world-wide outreach.

His popular science book THE PHYSICS OF SUPERHEROES was published in 2005 in the U.S. and the U.K., and has been translated into six languages. The SPECTACULAR SECOND EDITION was published in 2009, followed by THE AMAZING STORY OF QUANTUM MECHANICS in 2010. His latest book THE PHYSICS OF EVERYDAY THINGS: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day was published last May.

In 2007, in response to a request from the US National Academy of Sciences, James Kakalios served as the consultant for the Warner Bros. superhero film Watchmen.  His video on the Science of Watchmen, which was viewed about 2 million times on youtube, received a Regional Emmy award.

James Kakalios is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has served as the Chair of the American Physical Society Committee on Informing the Public, and Past-Chair of the American Physical Society Forum on Outreach and Engaging the Public. His efforts on science communication have been recognized with the 2014 Association for the Advancement of Science Public Engagement Award and the American Institute of Physics’ 2016 Andrew Gemant Award.

Chancellor, in the context of these outstanding achievements in the advancement and public communication of physics I would like to call on you to confer on Professor James Kakalios an Honorary Doctorate of Science from the University of Lincoln.

L-R: Fabien Paillusson, Manuela Mura, Jim Kakalios, Andrei Zvelindovsky, Marco Pinna

L-R: James Kakalios and Chancellor Lord Victor Adebowale

L-R: Mayor of Lincoln Councillor Chris Burke, Jim Kakalios and Lincoln City Sheriff Ms Jo Rimmer

Jim Kakalios (centre-right), DVC Toby Wilkinson and Andrei Zvelindovsky with Lincoln Civic Party and Civic insignia

Jim Kakalios’ speech at the graduation:

Thank you very much. I would like to thank Chancellor Lord Adebowale, Professor Andrei Zvelindovsky,Vice-Chancellor, faculty and staff and everyone at the University of Lincoln for this honor. I congratulate all the students on their achievement celebrated here today, along with the true superheroes – their parents!

This is quite a trip for me, the son of a New York City taxi driver, whose parents did not go to college. I went to public schools (I believe they are called ‘state schools’ here) and the City College of New York. When I left for graduate school at the University of Chicago, situated roughly one thousand miles from New York, it was the furthest I had ever been from home. I have continued to travel far from where I started, thanks to my education. You are all here at an institution of higher education, so I don’t have to tell you that learning and study is the entry road to a full life.

My own road led me from Chicago to California and then to Minnesota, near the Canadian border (just so you know the road is not always straight!). As a physics professor at the University of Minnesota, I have found great satisfaction in research and teaching, and also in science outreach, engaging with the general public and sharing my joy of physics with others.

In communicating science to non-technical audiences, one approach that I’ve found fruitful is to illustrate physics principles using examples taken from superhero comic books and movies. Some find it easier to grasp physics concepts when the explanations involve Superman and Spider-Man (it isn’t the first time these heroes have saved the day!).

I came to this approach naturally, as I was and still am a reader and collector of comic books. Yes, in addition to being a college professor, I am also a comic book fan. This makes me both a geek and a nerd. (Sorry – I’m already married!).

My advice to you all (not that anyone asked) is to honor your own geekiness (your passions and interests) and your nerdiness (your smarts and education), so that they enhance and reinforce each other, improving the journey on your personal road.

You mark a significant accomplishment today, and you should indeed be proud, but note that your education is never over, never complete. While there may be no more ‘requirements’ (Aside, that is, for getting a job. Don’t worry parents – I’ve got your back!), there are still an unlimited number of ‘electives’ that you can try. Cast a wide net outside of your comfort zone, try new things and meet new people. Engage with issues bigger than yourself – there is great power that comes from a lifetime of learning. Now you must promise to use this power for good!

I don’t have to tell you that with great power there must also come great responsibility. But responsibility to do what? Here comic books can provide some guidance.

In the comic book story “The Last Days of Superman” (in, as you all know, Superman Comics # 156) when the Man of Steel thought he was dying of Virus X (fortunately a false alarm), he carved a giant message to the people of Earth on the surface of the moon using his heat vision. His final words to the people of his adopted planet were: “Do good to others, and every man can be a Superman.”

Thank you all very much. Thank you University of Lincoln. Thank you.

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  1. […] with a fascinating talk on the physics of superheros. Earlier during the day James received an Honorary Doctor of Science degree from the University of Lincoln. The lecture was followed by signing the book The Physics of Superheroes by the […]

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© School of Mathematics and Physics, University of Lincoln, Brayford Pool, Lincoln, LN6 7TS, United Kingdom
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