Off Beat

The Physics of a Media Feeding Frenzy

"I hit the pop-culture beast right between the eyes."

Physics professor Jim Kakalios swivels in his chair in his office on the University of Minnesota campus. He points out the action figures lining his bookshelf: Superman, Green Lantern, Aquaman. Spider-Man dangles from a wire over his Macintosh G3. "If I disappeared for a second from the office, I'd come back to ten voice messages. It was Newton's Second Law of Motion: Force equals mass times acceleration."

This spring Kakalios, who recently taught a course called "Science in Comic Books," sent the Star Tribune an essay on the plausibility of Spider-Man's powers. On Friday, May 3, the day the Spider-Man movie opened, the Strib published the piece. By the following Monday, Kakalios had received more than 20 interview requests from around the world. He estimates that in the next few weeks he did more than 30 interviews with media outlets "on every continent except for Antarctica." At one point an Associated Press story about his essay was Yahoo's fourth most e-mailed story.

"My dignity sense was tingling from time to time," the 43-year-old father of three says of the frenzy, noting that he did turn down some interview requests: "I didn't want to do any zany 'zoo crews'; I didn't want to be talking about this while people are making sex jokes on the air in the background."

The pop-culture beast has moved on, but Kakalios isn't quite through. As long as it doesn't interfere with his day job, he's hoping to parlay his ability to "hide their spinach in a comic-book sundae" into a children's book or textbook--maybe even a bestseller. --By G.R. Anderson Jr.


Crime Victims Take Heart

During the recent legislative session, lawmakers did away with the Office of Crime Victims Ombudsman, eliminating the post of ombudsman Laura Goodman-Brown and transferring the duties of her office to the Department of Public Safety as of July 1. Because the department oversees some of the law-enforcement agencies about which the ombudsman's office receives complaints, the move raised concerns that impartial oversight would be made impossible (see "Blame the Victims," May 15, available online at

But on June 6, Department of Administration commissioner David Fisher signed a "reorganization order" that appears to be an 11th-hour reprieve. The order--which, department spokeswoman Laura Bishop emphasizes, won't become official for 30 days--transfers the duties of the crime victims ombudsman once again, to the Office of the Ombudsman for Mental Health and Mental Retardation. Though the order does not reinstate the position of ombudsman--it can't alter the law--Bishop says the new arrangement will fund the staff of the victims'-rights agency, including a position for Goodman-Brown, and adds that the office will continue to function autonomously. "It is a priority for the governor to make sure these offices do maintain their independence," she says.

According to Bishop, financial details have yet to be completely ironed out. The plan is for another department to transfer $200,000 to keep the watchdog group afloat. Next year Goodman-Brown will have to appeal to the legislature to officially restore her office as a separate entity and allocate a budget.

Goodman-Brown will prepare for that struggle in the next several months. But, for now, she's relieved. "This is good news," she says. "The task is to make people understand that we're here, and we're ready to take on their complaints." --By Leyla Kokmen

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