Physicist Takes on Superhero Role for LaserFest

By Michael Lucibella

Becky Superhero web
Photo by Ken Cole/ Nancy B. Karasik/APS
Becky Thompson-Flagg as Spectra

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Watch out Superman, there’s a new superhero in town! And she doesn’t just shoot lasers, she actually is a laser. To coincide with this year’s LaserFest, various events commemorating the 50th anniversary of the invention of the laser, APS debuted a series of comic books as part of its public outreach efforts.

Aimed primarily at pre-teens, the comic books (Spectra: The Original Laser Superhero and Spectra’s Power) are based on the characters Lucinda Hene, a middle schooler, and her laser superhero alter ego Spectra, who fight against the evil Miss Alignment.  

Physicist Rebecca Thompson-Flagg, who heads APS’s Public Outreach Department, is the creative force behind Spectra. She developed the characters, wrote the script and has been instrumental in bringing Spectra to life. She even designed a Spectra costume for public appearances.

In 2008, the APS Outreach Department’s first comic book, Nicola Tesla and the Electric Fair, was created as a companion piece to APS’s PhysicsQuest kit–scientific experiments and activities for middle-school students focused on the lives of famous physicists.  APS annually sends more than 13,000 free kits to classrooms throughout the country.

Thompson-Flagg said the Outreach Department decided to develop an original character to educate students about laser science for the 2009-10 school year.

Spectra web
KGJ APS © 2009




“Spectra is a laser superhero,” Thompson-Flagg said. “Anything a laser can do, she can do. Anything light can do, she can do.” Throughout the course of the story, Spectra uses her powers to save her kidnapped friends from the clutches of the evil Miss Alignment. She can travel at the speed of light, change color, cut through solid metal, pass through windows, reflect off of mirrors and diffract into multiple copies of herself.

“I wanted to really create a full character that could carry the story and to make her more than just a plot device,” said Thompson-Flagg who consulted, a network of web sites that promote positive depictions of female characters in comics.

Thompson-Flagg said she wants to attract more females to science because they have been historically underrepresented in the field.

Thompson-Flagg and APS’s Art Director Kerry G. Johnson worked together to create diverse characters for the book.

“It was very important to draw a strong, progressive superhero,” said Johnson, who created the artwork. He added that he hoped that children, including his own middle-school daughter, would read the book and see science as accessible to everybody.

Johnson decided to base Spectra’s look on Thompson-Flagg, in part, to inspire her to create as realistic a character as possible.

“It’s not Becky, but it does resemble Becky,” he said about the Spectra character. Despite their likeness, Thompson-Flagg said she didn’t base Spectra on herself at a young age. “I just came up with a middle-school girl,” she said.

“I think I created her to be way cooler.”

Spectra has quickly become the emblem for much of LaserFest’s public outreach efforts.
Feedback from teachers and students who have read the original comic book has been overwhelmingly positive, and it is already in its fourth printing.

“Part of the plan is to use Spectra to bring the excitement of physics to new audiences,” said Thompson-Flagg. The outreach team has secured space at San Diego’s annual Comic-Con this summer. The massive convention, which each year attracts more than 140,000 comic book fans, will be the largest conference of any kind the outreach team has attended.

“We’re excited about getting the opportunity to reach a different community,” Thompson-Flagg said.