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The Dialogues

Clifford V. Johnson
MIT Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Mark Hunacek
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There’s a first time for everything. For years now I have reviewed books for this column on a wide variety of subjects involving mathematics and physics, from the game-theoretic aspects of torture to the cryptological issues raised by the Zodiac killer in California. But until now I have never reviewed a graphic novel — also known (if inaccurately), to some members of my generation, as a comic book.

Clifford Johnson, the author of this 250-page long graphic novel, is a physicist at the University of Southern California with considerable experience in popularizing his subject for laypeople. He has given public lectures on physics and has served as technical advisor for various movies and TV shows. His idea here (what he describes in the preface as an “oddball project”) is to discuss a number of issues in physics at the popular level in a graphic novel.

It says something about the author’s diligence and dedication to this book, I think, that after he decided to embark on this project, he also used a portion of a sabbatical semester to learn how to draw, so that he could be both artist and writer. That in itself is an impressive accomplishment — for all his contributions to comic book history as writer and editor, Stan Lee never, to my knowledge, actually drew Spider-man. The artwork in this book is, in fact, quite vivid, and the book is a pleasure to read. (One visual quibble, however: many of the word balloons have a purple background, and I sometimes found it hard to read the black lettering against this.)

There are eleven chapters. Characters often appear in more than one of them, but there is a fair degree of independence among chapters. Each chapter involves a conversation, often but not always between an expert and an intelligent amateur. These conversations, as conversations are wont to do, wander about and sometimes segue from one subject to another. In the first chapter, for example, we meet a scientist and an interested layperson; the conversation begins with the issue of why more scientists-turned-superheroes don’t use their powers to advance science rather than just, say, stop bank robberies. Despite having spent a huge percentage of my formative years devouring comic books, I must confess that this is an intriguing question that I never really thought about before. By the time the chapter is over, however, we have advanced beyond this question and also talked about relativity and Maxwell’s equations.

Other chapters discuss subjects including (but not limited to) the multiverse, whether there can be a “theory of everything”, black holes, whether mathematics is invented or discovered, and immortality and the existence of God.

The book is a reasonably quick read, but an interesting one. The conversations are absorbing and educational, and are often accompanied by actual equations. (It’s nice that Johnson isn’t one of those popularizers who feel the need to brag about how little mathematics gets used in the book.) Each of the eleven chapters ends with a set of notes, varying from comments on the graphical material to a discussion of sources for further reading.

It was in one of these notes that I discovered the one error that I found in the book, one that is not actually connected with physics: the author gives a short list of comic book scientists who became superheroes; he mentions Reed Richards, who became Mr. Fantastic (leader of the Fantastic Four) but then also mentions Sue Storm (another member of the Fantastic Four, who ultimately marries Reed Richards}; she was not, however, in the comic books at any rate, a scientist. (Of course, my knowledge of comic books ends with the late 1960s, so in more modern incarnations she may have become a scientist.)

One question did nag at me as I read this book. While I enjoyed it, and learned from it, I also found myself asking whether the graphic novel format was the optimal way to present this material, or whether I would have enjoyed an actual popular-account book by this author more. The author believes that “fundamentally, comics are physics” because each deals with “[s]pace and time and the relationship between things.” This is an amusing idea, but I’m not sure it necessarily implies that this approach is the best way to present physics. The ideas of physics, it seems to me, often require more discussion than is possible in comic book format; the dialogues here generally didn’t really, for obvious and unavoidable reasons, penetrate very deeply into the subject; if for no other reason than the fact that you can’t use a lot of words in a comic book. Some pages of the book, for example, contain no words at all. (Of course, as previously noted, there are end-of-chapter notes which provide sources for further reading.)

Also, at the risk of sounding like a crotchety dinosaur, I have to say that I am concerned that we are raising a generation of students who are losing the ability to sit down and actually read a book with some degree of understanding. Cell phones and text-messaging have so completely destroyed the attention spans of younger people today that many of them (if my students are any indication) may have trouble digesting information that is not presented in quick little bursts of thought balloons. The format of this book may be useful for these readers, but it makes me a little uneasy to surrender to this trend.

While the graphic novel format may not be the optimal method of presenting this material, it can certainly be an interesting one. This is an original and nicely done book, and is certainly worth a look, and perhaps a place on your coffee table.

Mark Hunacek ( teaches mathematics at Iowa State University. 

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