How physicist Jim Kakalios invented a math equation for the new Spider-Man movie

Scientific advising for science-fiction films is a really fascinating topic for me. It's a weird, weird world, where the goal is not necessarily extreme accuracy, but extreme believability. That can be a stress point for science, a field that is, generally, all about striving for accuracy. The scientists that help directors create believable worlds have to balance the goal of educating the public with the goal of entertaining same. That can be tough, and it leads some creative solutions—and little educational Easter Eggs buried in the background of blockbusters.

Take the work University of Minnesota physicist Jim Kakalios recently did for the new Spider-Man reboot. The film's creators asked him to invent a complicated-looking equation that, in the context of the story, would relate to cell regeneration and human mortality.

How do you invent a fictional equation? Start with a real one.

In this video, Kakalios explains where his imaginary equation came from, starting with the Gompertz Equation, a very real function that describes mortality rates and can be used to model tumor growth.

Video Link


  1. Yay, this makes up for the bit in Spider-Man 2 where Peter’s answer to “what’s the eigenvalue?” is “.23 electron volts”.

    [edit: oops, didn’t know Spider-Man was written with a hyphen]

    1. maybe “0.23” is nonsense (but it is at least around the right order of magnitude), but an eigenvalue in electron volts is perfectly fine quantum physics.

      1. Dammit!  I knew I should’ve stuck with pointing out that if you have a little nodule gizmo that’s critical for preventing an AI from taking over your brain and making you insane, then you shouldn’t place it where a stiff breeze could knock it off…

    2. Kakalios was on NPR’s Science Friday this afternoon, and it was very nice to hear that this Spiderman movie was trying to do the physics better.   The first one was just a mess, in terms of watching Spidey and the Bad Guys bounce off walls in ways that didn’t even correspond well to Cartoon Physics, much less what Actual Physics would do if it had loopholes for superheroes.

  2. In case you blinked and missed the other physicist’s name, he’s Boris Shklovskii, and the paper mentioned is “A simple derivation of the Gompertz law for human mortality”, here  (only 1 page of very easy maths!) :

  3. I invented a complicated-looking equation relating to cell regeneration and human mortality for The Amazing Spider-Man, and all I got was this lousy tie.

  4. The topic of SF TV show advisors reminds me of Ben Bova’s famous quote about his time in this role on that paragon of Canadian SF TV “The Starlost”: ‘I explain the science involved to the writes and they ignore me.’

  5. Just solve a Bessel equation. It will look impressive and cover several blackboards. Nobody without a MS or Ph.D in math or science will know the difference (except perhaps some smart applied math and physics students). Spherical Bessel functions are especially intimidating.

  6. There was a summer program about Sci-Fi on TV and in the movies at UC’s Lawrence Hall of Science. We saw lots of clips. Then as a treat we saw a new movie before it was released. A staffer had been a consultant. You can imagine the advanced degrees of the parents of some of the kids in the audience. When it was revealed in the titles that the hero was a neurosurgeon, a rock star, and leader of a do-good organization consisting mostly of children, we roared with laughter. The movie was Buckaroo Banzai.

  7. The production designer for Buckaroo Banzai was Mike Riva, who was also the production designer for THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and both IRON MAN movies.  A great artist and a prince of a man – he tragically passed away recently while working on Quentin Taratino’s new film.  A small, select group of people are responsible for the look of many classic movies – a role one often doesn’t think about that has a large impact.

    I asked Mike once, why there was a watermelon in the lab in BUCKAROO BANZAI.  He just chuckled.

  8. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Jim talk at the APS March Meeting several times, and it’s always fascinating and fun.  As a budding, professional research scientist, I’m glad to have him as a representative to the people who create popular culture.  As a nerd, with a passion for things like comic books, movies, and television, I’m thrilled to have him as a representative to the scientific community.

    After I wrote the paragraph above, I did a quick google search for his march meeting talks. Instead I found this convocation speech he gave in 2009, which sums up the quality I tried to convey above:

    Keep it up, Jim!

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