This USC physicist wants you to talk about science. His new graphic novel can get you started
Clifford Johnson wants you to talk about physics.
Quantum gravity? String theory? The fate of black holes?
All of it should be discussed, according to the theoretical high energy physicist from USC. That goes for everyone, even those of us who can’t tell a neutron from a neutrino.
“People say ‘Ah, it’s not for me.’ Or they say, ‘I don’t have that kind of brain,’” he said. “I just don’t believe in that.”
To prove his point, he has written and illustrated a graphic novel, “The Dialogues.” It depicts a series of conversations about astrophysics, quantum physics, and the stretchiness of space and time, among other topics.
Characters in “The Dialogues” meet at costume parties, talk on trains and amble through the streets of Los Angeles and other cities.
Some of the characters are scientists, but not all. For example, in one story, two kids set out to investigate why the amount of rice in a pot appears to swell after simmering on the stove.
“Science is for everybody,” Johnson said. “You don’t have to have a billion-dollar experiment discovering some new particle to see the joy of science.”
The professor, whose research is focused on things like string theory and gravity, worked on the book off and on for almost two decades. Some of that time was spent teaching himself to draw. Some was used to measure a parking meter or two.
“In some stories, I got carried away on the details,” he said.
He said the project was inspired in part by the Socratic dialogues of the ancient Greeks. Centuries later, Galileo used the same format to present his scientific ideas.
Johnson hopes that allowing readers to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations about science will inspire them to start talking about science themselves. He discussed his vision with The Times.
Can you describe your research?
I like to say I work on origins questions. So, what’s everything made of? Where does it come from? What is the origin of space and time? These days I spend a lot of my time thinking about quantum gravity, string theory and black holes.
To me, physics feels like the most opaque of the sciences. Do you agree?
I don’t think any particular science is more opaque than any other. Some stuff requires you sitting with it, getting it a little bit, and then getting a bit more. People either don’t have the patience for it, or they think you either get it or you don’t. There are very few things like that — that you genuinely really get it or you don’t.
Do you spend a lot of time talking to non-scientists?
Yeah. I see it as part of my job. I think it is extremely important to be out there in the world as a regular person who just happens to do science.
Sometimes people get intimidated and that’s unfortunate. There is this assumption either that they are wasting my time or I am super-smart and they won’t understand what I’m saying. It’s all unfortunate. We’re all just people out there in the world doing interesting things.
How did a physicist come to write and draw a graphic novel?
I didn’t feel any urgency to do another one of the kind of science books that people in my field are supposed to write. It’s kind of the voice of authority telling you what you are supposed to think about a subject. I wanted to get away from that lecturing style.
You didn’t just write this book, you drew it as well. Was that challenging?
Before working on this book I could sketch, but there is a whole learned skill set you can develop by practicing and learning the craft of drawing in order to raise it to a level for what I did for the book. I have endless notebooks. I sit on the train, I sit on the plane, I sit on the bus and I always have notebooks with me. That’s how I practiced over the many years.