The ineffable joy of transforming boring scientific explanations into exciting comics
Cartooning entomologist Jay Hosler's forthcoming young adult graphic novel Last of the Sandwalkers masterfully combines storytelling with science; in this essay, he explains how beautifully comics play into the public understanding of science -- and why that understanding is a matter of urgency for all of us.
Allow me to spill the beans right at the beginning of this essay.
The answer is comics.
Now, let's consider the question.
Not too long ago a good friend of mine quite publicly declared that he was not interested in the boring scientific explanation for a rainbow. We were in a large group and I was somewhat saddened by this statement, not because I hadn't heard similar sentiments before, but because I heard them so often. It was all the more distressing because I'd spent the last decade writing and drawing a graphic novel about the biology and natural history of beetles called Last of the Sandwalkers. In the wake of this comment, as I prepare for another semester of teaching biology courses and the release of my book in the spring, I find myself in a reflective mood.
Why do I make comics about the natural world? Personally, I love boring scientific explanations, or at least the precise, detailed and often quantitative descriptions I think people mean by boring scientific explanations. The natural world inspires me. Reading about a newly discovered species like the bone-eating snot-flower worm fills me with an expansive sense of the wonder that I want to share. There are the equivalent of aliens living right under our feet and getting to know them enriches our lives. Rest assured, I am self-aware enough to know that going gah-gah over a new textbook is atypical for the population, but if I want to share my enthusiasm with my students and a broader audience I need to ask, "How?"
This isn't a trivial question. A survey of American attitudes suggests that only one in five Americans appreciate the value of scientific inquiry and that students in the United States still perform at or below the level of students in many other developed countries in science and mathematics. In my opinion, Carl Sagan provides the best description of this disastrous situation.
We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.
A democracy with an electorate that doesn't understand science cannot possibly hope to navigate issues like stem cell research or climate change. So, how do we connect potentially curious readers of all ages to the wonders of the universe locked in those "boring" explanations? The answer is obvious (since, y'know, I've already told you):
Now, before anyone's head explodes at that gross oversimplification, bear with me. Clearly, the solution to a big challenge like this is multi-variant, but I think comics provide an enormously powerful and entertaining approach to the problem.
At our core, humans are picture-loving, story-telling monkeys and comics plug into a fundamental way in which we explain things to each other. From cave paintings to schematics hastily jotted on a napkin, we use words and images to complete and amplify ideas and explanations. As a cartoonist, I try to harness that power to write graphic novels about science and natural history.
Graphic novels that deal with science can take on two forms. John DuPuis over at Confessions of a Science Librarian summarized the possibilities:
I have tried to do that second thing. Science embedded in graphic novels infuses those stories with wonder and mystery. Comic characters that explore the natural world take readers with them. In Last of the Sandwalkers, our intrepid band of beetle scientists discover flying beasts that hunt with sound, escape the clutches of a silken net and endure the embarrassment of sticky, velvet worm mucus. They see a bird for the first time and marvel at this strange creature with a skeleton on the inside of its body.
The first is basically transforming a boring, stilted, text-heavy textbook into a boring, stilted, illustration- and text-heavy graphic novel. The second involves taking advantage of the strengths of the graphic novel format to re-imagine how scientific knowledge can be presented to an interested audience.
The acclaimed cartoonist Harvey Pekar once said, "Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures." My first science graphic novel was the biography of a honey bee. Sixteen years later, I still hear from readers about how it changed the way they look at these insects. What was once a terrifying menace to be squished on sight was now a fellow creature with a family and a vital role to play in our world. The words and images of comics can help us feel an emotional connection with a subject and give us a reason to revisit it over and over.
Textbooks can explain science, but comics can make readers care about it.
Lucy is not one to quietly cooperate, however. This tiny field scientist defies the law of her safe but authoritarian home and leads a team of researchers out into the desert. Their mission is to discover something about the greater world...but what lies in wait for them is going to change everything Lucy thought she knew.
Beetles are not the only living creatures in the world.
Deftly combining suspenseful adventure storytelling with the principles and tools of scientific inquiry, entomologist and cartoonist Jay Hosler has created in The Last of the Sandwalkers a tale that satisfies and fascinates even the most bug-averse among us.
A scrap dealer cleaning out a deceased engineer’s basement in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania found two massive 1960s computers, magnetic tape data storage systems, and hundreds of tape reels, all of which was marked as the property of NASA. The scrap dealer called NASA to report what he found and the agency’s Office of the Inspector General […]
The Department of Agriculture’s chief scientist oversees more than 1,000 scientists in 100 research facilities: Trump’s pick to run the agency is Sam Clovis, a climate-denying talk-radio host who not only lacks any kind of scientific degrees — he didn’t take a single science course at university.
NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia turns 100 this year. In celebration, the space agency produced this short documentary and enlisted Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner, to narrate. Here are just a few highlights from NASA Langley’s incredible history: • In times of peace and war, NASA Langley helped to create a better airplane, […]
Just because English has become the common global tongue doesn’t mean it’s the easiest language to write—even for native speakers. If you’re looking to improve your written communication skills, especially on your smartphone, take a look at Ginger Page.Ginger is a cross-platform app that offers corrections for phrasing as well as grammar. It’s powered by […]
The current web development landscape is rife with buzzwords and technology that gets abandoned almost as soon as it’s made. If you’ve never written a line of code before, it can be hard to figure out what’s coming, what’s here to stay, or how to get ahead.This Beginner Web Development Bundle is a great place […]
The Fader Stealth Quadcopter from TRNDlabs packs incredible flight performance into a package small enough to land on your phone screen, and it’s available now in the Boing Boing Store.The Fader’s six-axis gyroscope module gives it perfect balance in the air. This makes the onboard 720p HD camera all the better for shooting amazing flight […]