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Physicist James Kakalios of the University of Minnesota Receives the 2014 AAAS Public Engagement with Science Award

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has named James Kakalios as the recipient of the 2014 AAAS Public Engagement with Science Award, recognizing "the unique ways he communicates the ideas and excitement of physics" and stimulates members of the general public to learn more about developments in science and technology that shape their lives.

Kakalios, Taylor Distinguished Professor in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, has used comic books and superhero movies as a "hook" to explain concepts ranging from Newton's laws of physics to the quantum mechanics that is manifest in devices like transistors.

James Kaliakos third

Courtesy of James Kakalios

"His key insight was that many non-scientists doubt their ability to understand science and that he could break through their 'insecurity shield' by explaining complex phenomena in terms of the adventures of Spider-Man or Superman," the award review panel said in support of the award to Kakalios.

Kakalios, an accomplished condensed matter physicist, is the author of two science books for the general public: The Physics of Superheroes and The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics. These publications have led to an extraordinary number of invitations to deliver talks and lectures to the general public-68 in the past five years.

In nominating Kakalios for the award, Ronald A. Poling, professor and head of the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Minnesota, noted that his colleague's ultimate goal "is to demonstrate a relevance of scientific research to daily life that is not clear to many in the general public." The Amazing Story of Quantum Mechanics exemplifies this, Poling said, by "eschewing philosophical interpretations of quantum theory for descriptions of practical applications of solid-state and semiconductor physics, such as the laser, the transistor and magnetic resonance imaging."

For Kakalios, the message is clear, Poling wrote. "Science may not have delivered jet packs and flying cars predicted by pulp magazines and comic books, but it has brought us laptop computers and cell phones, made possible by our understanding of the quantum nature of matter and energy."

He added that Kakalios is one of only a few physicists to successfully collaborate with the producers of major motion pictures. "As a volunteer science consultant to the producers of the Warner Bros. film Watchmen and the Sony film The Amazing Spider-Man, he demonstrated how it should be done: balancing the producers' drive to make an entertaining film with his interest in keeping the science as accurate as possible," Poling wrote.

To leverage the outreach potential of superhero film consulting, Kakalios produced "The Science of Watchmen," a video that explained the basic principles of quantum mechanics as related to one of the film's characters, Dr. Manhattan. The YouTube video has been viewed nearly two million times. It won an Upper Midwest Regional Emmy award in 2009 and was nominated for a WEBBY award in 2010. 

Kakalios has given major invited talks at the Edinburgh Book Festival, the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, the Library of Congress, and Microsoft. At the invitation of the U.S. State Department in 2013, he gave sixteen lectures to students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM ) education in Portugal.

Kakalios graduated summa cum laude from City College of New York and received his master's degree and doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago. He was a National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator from 1990 to 1995.  He has served as a consultant for the Science and Entertainment Exchange of the National Academy of Sciences, is a past-chair of the Forum on Outreach and Engaging the Public of the American Physical Society (APS), and is the chair of the APS Committee for Informing the Public.

The AAAS Award for Public Engagement with Science, established in 1987, recognizes scientists and engineers who make outstanding contributions to the "popularization of science." The award conveys a monetary prize of $5,000, a commemorative plaque, complimentary registration and travel to the AAAS Annual Meeting.

Kakalios will receive his award during the 181th AAAS Annual Meeting in San Jose, Calif., 12-16 February 2015. The AAAS Awards Ceremony and Reception will be held at 6:15 p.m. on Friday, 13 February in Room 220C of the San Jose Convention Center.