For the first time ever, the World Science Festival (WSF) was represented at New York Comic Con on Sunday, October 13, 2013. The non-profit organization, founded and cultivated by working theoretical physicist and popular science magnate Brian Greene, is based in the boroughs and originally aimed to bring an appreciation and understanding of science to the masses through annual gatherings and groups of activities. The WSF has been running such events successfully since 2008, and now with participation in other enterprises like Comic Con, they hope to sing the gospel of curiosity year round.
The panel, entitled “When Science Gets Graphic,” was opened by Greene himself, who passed the mic to songwriter Jonathan Coulton. Coulton’s catalog includes a tune about the Mandlebrot fractal set and another, called “Code Monkey,” that’s inspired an upcoming graphic novel by Greg Pak and Takeshi Miyazawa. The “geek rock” icon then introduced authors Jim Ottaviani, Dominic Walliman and Charles Soule.
From left to right: Coulton, Ottaviani, Walliman and Soule.
The focus of the panel was to address just why the endeavor of science lends itself so well to the graphic novel medium and how that can be used to drum up enthusiasm for the practice. Ottaviani, a library scientist who pursued a career in nuclear engineering until, as he puts it, “the math got too hard,” made the seemingly obvious point that science books typically boast more illustrations than those about literature or other topics. And that difference can be used to instill wonder.
“Very few people I’ve ever met have been inspired by a textbook,” Ottaviani continued, citing the ability of a graphic novel’s imagery to suck a person in. “The textbooks are there waiting,” he said, for anyone who wants to get into the nitty-gritty after having their interest sufficiently piqued.
Ottoviani’s latest, “Primates,” follows the careers of famous researchers Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas.
Walliman, who has a doctorate in quantum device physics and has helped program some of the world’s first quantum computers, one of which was just sold to NASA, fell into the graphic novel game when lifelong friend and illustrator Ben Newman asked him to collaborate on a children’s book about space. “Professor Astro Cat’s Frontiers of Space” is an ambitious introduction to a vast topic, meant to span from the Big Bang all the way to today’s astronautical adventures. Walliman laughed when I later asked if the book would be 7,000 pages long, and conceded it’s more like 60. Still, he’s happy to bring science to kids in “a format that inspires them.”
Soule (who was kind enough to speak to me after the panel about his new science fiction story “Letter 44”) stressed that the best way to connect to your audience is to love the material yourself. “Write what you want to know,” he emphasized, saying that writing about science gives him an excuse to research it. “I can be selfish and try to help people at the same time.” Soule cited an upcoming scene of his “Superman/Wonder Woman” in which the pair have to change the temperatures inside a looming hurricane to cease its fierce rotation.
Soule’s “Strange Attractors” looks at New York City through the eyes of a fictional mathematician, although actual ones say the story doesn’t always match reality.
The panel closed with audience questions, including one that wondered if professional scientists ever called the authors out on inaccuracies in their fiction. Coulton and Soule admitted that mathematicians had chided them at times, while Ottaviani defended imprecision in service of the narrative. While science is about repeatability and accuracy, he said, storytelling isn’t well-served by meticulous attention to detail.
Oh, and if you’re keeping score, Walliman’s favorite beer is Duvel.
Jim Ottaviani has written several graphic novels, the best known of which is “Two-Fisted Science,” a collection of biographical stories about Galileo, Isaac Newton and others. When not revolutionizing the computing industry, Dominic Walliman likes to give physics talks at schools and festivals. Soule is almost too prolific for words. He also writes the ongoing series “Red Lanterns,” “Swamp Thing” and “Thunderbolts.” His newest work for Marvel should be more in his professional wheelhouse as a lawyer. Look for Soule’s relaunched “She-Hulk” in February of 2014.
Photo of the panel courtesy of worldsciencefestival.com.