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Discovering secrets of the universe with a graphic novel

ByAlice Wiersma

Mar 15, 2018

Nerds read physics books; geeks read comics. Right? Well, not entirely. Clifford V Johnson, Professor of Physics at the University of Southern California, is attempting to bridge the gap between the scientist and the layperson through a more creative medium: the graphic novel. Drawing inspiration from Plato’s own use of dialogues as a vehicle for philosophical and scientific debate, Johnson invites the reader of his new graphic novel, The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe, to eavesdrop on conversations about both cutting edge and century-old discoveries.

The entire point of The Dialogues is to bring science to the public and encourage them to investigate further. It is to be the aperitif to whet the appetite for science. In this aspect, Johnson succeeds. He introduces a variety of topics, ranging in comprehension level from a children’s experiment showcasing the scientific method, to the recent proof of gravitational waves.

Furthermore, Johnson also addresses the philosophy of science. In one instance, a scientist is asked about the Theory of Everything, a single framework that connects all physical forces in the universe, to which she suggests that there is no such thing. A Theory of Everything would bring up new questions that need to be answered, leading to a new theory.

As a science student, I found such philosophical discussions about the basic principles of science and knowledge refreshing and well-articulated. It is a fresh glimpse at the world of science where experts find grey areas in arguments and often say, ‘we don’t know’ when our culture pits arguments and theories against one another and demands we choose a victor. As a non-physics student, this graphic novel is a glimpse into the science of our universe. Physics was always too abstract a subject for me to appreciate, yet Johnson has piqued my interest. In addition to the concepts explained through the illustrations, Johnson provides additional notes and resources following each chapter for the curious mind. These range from websites on the science of cooking, to papers about quantum field theory, to explanations of the units used in equations.

While graphic novels may not seem like the most obvious or practical approach to teaching physics, the medium lends itself quite well to this purpose. The book follows nine conversations on topics ranging from cooking rice, to string theory, to the philosophy of scientific debate.

A picture tells a thousand words, as the adage says, and Clifford cleverly illustrates his explanations and metaphors of the subjects covered. For example, in one conversation, a scientist explains how time runs differently depending on whether you are in or outside a strong gravitational field such as a black hole. She paints a scenario whereby this principle could be used to make a person seem immortal and God-like. As she narrates, the illustrations visualise her thought process as we follow the journey of our seemingly immortal individual.

Johnson drew all the illustrations in his book, an impressive feat for someone whose principal field is not visual arts. Such dedication to a project is admirable, and the quality of the art reflects the work Johnson put into not only the textual but also visual content of the novel. However, while the art does an excellent job of visualising complex ideas and is generally pleasing to look at, the characters and settings appear quite boring. On several occasions, the reader is presented with static illustrations of the two conversationalists and little else for several pages at a time. The conversations, too, can be quite dry, with one individual simply reciting prompts for the expert to fill in the blanks.

The idea of a graphic novel is certainly a novel one, yet on certain occasions it falls short of its own expectations in displaying difficult concepts of extra dimensions and string theory. This may be due to the fact that those who enjoy visual media, like myself, are accustomed to exaggerated versions of reality presented in comic books. This is most certainly a graphic novel, not a comic book, and should be viewed as such. It is grounded in reality, and unfortunately, this causes it to bring some design flaws with it.

One aspect that Johnson certainly did not shy away from was incorporating a variety of people from different backgrounds. There is a Hispanic family of science enthusiasts, multiple black scientists, and multiple female scientists. Three conversations are between women only. Religion is brought up and discussed, with both conversationalists remaining civil and accommodating of each other’s beliefs. What makes the range of people  that Johnson portrays in this graphic novel particularly successful is that there is no evidence of the identity politics commonplace in today’s culture. There is simply the fact that science is not for the stereotypical white male, but for all of us.

Overall Clifford Johnson’s The Dialogues works very well for what it is. While the illustrations often lacked action shots and interesting backgrounds, it made good use of the graphic novel format and achieved its primary goal of conveying complex information to a general audience.

I certainly closed the book more knowledgeable than when I opened it, and I spent several hours thereafter doing further research. Science is certainly not just for scientists, and physics is not just for physicists. It is an intrinsic part of our lives and the reason for our great technological advances.

Knowing a little about what makes our world, our world, never hurt anyone – and I would certainly recommend The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe as a starting point to discovering more about the universe.

Image credit: Pexels via Pixabay


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