Comics and Popular Science: An Interview with Clifford V. Johnson (Part One)


Clifford V. Johnson is the first theoretical physicist who I have ever interviewed for my blog. Given the sharp divide that our society constructs between the sciences and the humanities, he may well be the last, but he would be the first to see this gap as tragic, a consequence of the current configuration of disciplines. Johnson, as I have discovered, is deeply committed to helping us recognize the role that science plays in everyday life, a project he pursues actively through his involvement as one of the leaders of the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities (of which I am also a member), as a consultant on various film and television projects, and now, as the author of a graphic novel, The Dialogues, which is being released this week. We were both on a panel about contemporary graphic storytelling Tara McPherson organized for the USC Sydney Harmon Institute for Polymathic Study and we've continued to bat around ideas about the pedagogical potential of comics ever since.

Here's what I wrote when I was asked to provide a blurb for his new book:

"Two superheroes walk into a natural history museum -- what happens after that will have you thinking and talking for a long time to come. Clifford V. Johnson's The Dialogues joins a select few examples of recent texts, such as Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe, Nick Sousanis's Unflattening, Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland, or Joe Sacco's Palestine, which use the affordances of graphic storytelling as pedagogical tools for changing the ways we think about the world around us. Johnson displays a solid grasp of the craft of comics, demonstrating how this medium can be used to represent different understandings of the relationship between time and space, questions central to his native field of physics. He takes advantage of the observational qualities of contemporary graphic novels to explore the place of scientific thinking in our everyday lives." 

To my many readers who care about sequential art, this is a book which should be added to your collection -- Johnson makes good comics, smart comics, beautiful comics, and comics which are doing important work, all at the same time. What more do you want!

In the interviews that follows, we explore more fully what motivated this particular comics and how approaching comics as a theoretical physicist has helped him to discover some interesting formal aspects of this medium.


The Dialogues seeks to call attention to everyday conversations about science. Why? What are the stakes for you as a scientist in calling attention to the ways everyday people think about and talk about science?

It goes back a long time, actually. Many people have liked the way I explain scientific concepts to non-experts, and several kept asking me when I was going to write that non-expert level book that people who do a lot of public science explaining usually end up writing. I was stumped for a good answer. I did not feel that the world urgently needed another of those books…not from me anyway. There’s nothing wrong with those books, they are wonderful resources - it just did not feel urgent, and so I carried on with my other work, doing research, and connecting to the public through various other media. Then 18  years ago (!) I had an idea. What was missing from the literature are science books that focus on the reader being able to see themselves as part of the conversation. As part of the joyful, delightful dance that science can be. So the core idea was to make the entire book a series of conversations.  Conversations of a type that any reader may have had, or can be a part of - any time they choose. This takes away some of the tone of the expert telling you what you’re supposed to think, and emphasises participation more. The engagement with science should not be left to the experts - its open to all kinds of people.


What do you want your readers to learn about science over the course of these exchanges? I am struck by the ways you seek to demystify aspects of the scientific process, including the role of theory, equations, and experimentation.



That participatory aspect is core, for sure. Conversations about science by random people out there in the world really do happen - I hear them a lot on the subway, or in cafes, and so I wanted to highlight those and celebrate them. So the book becomes a bit of an invitation to everyone to join in. But then I can show so many other things that typically just get left out of books about science: The ordinariness of the settings in which such conversations can take place, the variety of types of people involved, and indeed the main tools, like equations and technical diagrams, that editors usually tell you to leave out for fear of scaring away the audience. I also get to emphasise (sometimes in microcosm) the dialogue between theoretical work and the experimental work needed to connect it with reality. In one story, two kids theorize about a cooking process and devise an experiment to test their ideas. The experiment is designed well enough to sharply distinguish between two perfectly good theories.  This might not seem to be connected to fancy ideas about multiverses and quantum entanglement and other buzz-words people come to contemporary science books for… but that process is core to science.



Why did comics emerge as the best way to share these conversations with your readers? What has been your relationship with comics as a medium?


I said earlier that I had the idea to do dialogues about 18 years ago, but the idea for it to be a comic came years later. There was a visual component in the original idea, yes, but it was mostly to show at the end of each story a bit of what might have got scribbled during the conversation. As though you’d eavesdropped in a cafe, they’d left, and you picked up a scrap of paper they’d written on. Well, years went by and I’d occasionally take the idea off the shelf, tinker with it, and then put it back. But I still did not start on the book. Then around 2006 or so I realised that every time I tinkered the visual component grew. I wanted to show more of the things they’d scribbled… Maybe the order in which the scribbling happened. Then I wanted to show who was having the conversations. Maybe that would engage the reader - we’re social animals, so we tend to be pulled into things that way. Then I thought it would be nice to show that these are happening in everyday circumstances. Cafés, sure, but also trains, buses, museums, on the street, in the home. And then it hit me - the visuals had entirely eaten the prose aspect of the book. What I was working on was a non-fiction graphic novel about science. I realised that there was really nothing out there like it, and then I just had to make it and get it out there into the world. It marked a return to the medium for me. I’d read superhero comics a lot as a kid, and into my early college years, and I was always interested in the art, but not at the level I would become later, for this project. In the early 90s I’d almost fully put them aside for various reasons. I’d dip in from time to time, but did not really become a regular reader again. But around the time the book ideas properly crystallized into a graphic book, I returned to reading the form, discovering that a lot of wonderful expansions into storytelling in a wide range of subjects had happened, and I began to consume many examples. By 2010 I took a sabbatical semester and devoted it to (secretly) studying the form in earnest to learn if I could do it, teaching myself art and other production techniques and so forth from books and lots of trial and error.

Clifford V. Johnson is a professor in the Physics and Astronomy Department at the University of Southern CaliforniaHere's how he describes his research on his home page: "My research (as a member of the Theory Group) focuses on the development of theoretical tools for the description of the basic fabric of Nature. The tools and ideas often have applications in other areas of physics (and mathematics) too - unexpected connections are part of the fun of research! Ultimately I (and the international community of which I am a part) am trying to understand and describe the origin, past, present and future of the Universe. This involves trying to describe its fundamental constituents (and their interactions), as well as the Universe as a dynamical object in its own right. I mainly work on (super)string theory, gravity, gauge theory and M-theory right now, which lead me to think about things like space-time, quantum mechanics, black holes, the big bang, extra dimensions, quarks, gluons, and so forth. See the research page for more, or look on my blog under the "research" category (here). I spend a lot of time talking about science with members of the public in various venues, from public talks and appearances, various intersections with the arts and media (you might catch me on TV and web shows like The Universe, Big History, or Fail Lab), to just chatting with someone on the subway. I love helping artists, filmmakers, writers, and other shapers of our culture include science in their work in some way. Check out my blog for more about those things, and occasional upcoming events. Get in touch if you are interested in having me appear at an event, or if I can help you with the science in your artistic endeavour."