Clifford V. Johnson is very good at promoting books. I tip my hat to him; that’s an excellent talent to have, especially when you’ve written a book, in his case, it’s a graphic novel titled ‘The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe‘.
I first stumbled across professor (University of Southern California) and physicist Johnson and his work in this January 18, 2018 news item on phys.org,
How often do you, outside the requirements of an assignment, ponder things like the workings of a distant star, the innards of your phone camera, or the number and layout of petals on a flower? Maybe a little bit, maybe never. Too often, people regard science as sitting outside the general culture: A specialized, difficult topic carried out by somewhat strange people with arcane talents. It’s somehow not for them.
But really science is part of the wonderful tapestry of human culture, intertwined with things like art, music, theater, film and even religion. These elements of our culture help us understand and celebrate our place in the universe, navigate it and be in dialogue with it and each other. Everyone should be able to engage freely in whichever parts of the general culture they choose, from going to a show or humming a tune to talking about a new movie over dinner.
Science, though, gets portrayed as opposite to art, intuition and mystery, as though knowing in detail how that flower works somehow undermines its beauty. As a practicing physicist, I disagree. Science can enhance our appreciation of the world around us. It should be part of our general culture, accessible to all. Those “special talents” required in order to engage with and even contribute to science are present in all of us.
Here’s more his January 18, 2018 essay on The Conversation (which was the origin for the news item), Note: Links have been removed,
… in addition to being a professor, I work as a science advisor for various forms of entertainment, from blockbuster movies like the recent “Thor: Ragnarok,” or last spring’s 10-hour TV dramatization of the life and work of Albert Einstein (“Genius,” on National Geographic), to the bestselling novel “Dark Matter,” by Blake Crouch. People spend a lot of time consuming entertainment simply because they love stories like these, so it makes sense to put some science in there.
Science can actually help make storytelling more entertaining, engaging and fun – as I explain to entertainment professionals every chance I get. From their perspective, they get potentially bigger audiences. But good stories, enhanced by science, also spark valuable conversations about the subject that continue beyond the movie theater.
Science can be one of the topics woven into the entertainment we consume – via stories, settings and characters. ABC Television
Nonprofit organizations have been working hard on this mission. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation helps fund and develop films with science content – “The Man Who Knew Infinity” (2015) and “Robot & Frank” (2012) are two examples. (The Sloan Foundation is also a funding partner of The Conversation US.)
The National Academy of Sciences set up the Science & Entertainment Exchange to help connect people from the entertainment industry to scientists. The idea is that such experts can provide Hollywood with engaging details and help with more accurate portrayals of scientists that can enhance the narratives they tell. Many of the popular Marvel movies – including “Thor” (2011), “Ant-Man” (2015) and the upcoming “Avengers: Infinity War” – have had their content strengthened in this way.
Encouragingly, a recent Pew Research Center survey in the U.S. showed that entertainment with science or related content is watched by people across “all demographic, educational and political groups,” and that overall they report positive impressions of the science ideas and scenarios contained in them.
Many years ago I realized it is hard to find books on the nonfiction science shelf that let readers see themselves as part of the conversation about science. So I envisioned an entire book of conversations about science taking place between ordinary people. While “eavesdropping” on those conversations, readers learn some science ideas, and are implicitly invited to have conversations of their own. It’s a resurrection of the dialogue form, known to the ancient Greeks, and to Galileo, as a device for exchanging ideas, but with contemporary settings: cafes, restaurants, trains and so on.
So over six years I taught myself the requisite artistic and other production techniques, and studied the language and craft of graphic narratives. I wrote and drew “The Dialogues: Conversations About the Nature of the Universe” as proof of concept: A new kind of nonfiction science book that can inspire more people to engage in their own conversations about science, and celebrate a spirit of plurality in everyday science participation.
I so enjoyed Johnson’s writing and appreciated how he introduced his book into the piece that I searched for more and found a three-part interview with Henry Jenkins on his Confessions of an Aca-Fan (Academic-Fan) blog. Before moving onto the interview, here’s some information about the interviewer, Henry Jenkins, (Note: Links have been removed),
Henry Jenkins is the Provost Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts and Education at the University of Southern California. He arrived at USC in Fall 2009 after spending more than a decade as the Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the Peter de Florez Professor of Humanities. He is the author and/or editor of seventeen books on various aspects of media and popular culture, including Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture, Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture, From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture, and By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. He is currently editing a handbook on the civic imagination and writing a book on “comics and stuff”. He has written for Technology Review, Computer Games, Salon, and The Huffington Post.
Jenkins is the principal investigator for The Civic Imagination Project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, to explore ways to inspire creative collaborations within communities as they work together to identify shared values and visions for the future. This project grew out of the Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics research group, also funded by MacArthur, which did case studies of innovative organizations that have been effective at getting young people involved in the political process. He is also the Chief Advisor to the Annenberg Innovation Lab. Jenkins also serves on the jury that selects the Peabody Awards, which recognizes “stories that matter” from radio, television, and the web.
He has previously worked as the principal investigator for Project New Media Literacies (NML), a group which originated as part of the MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Initiative. Jenkins wrote a white paper on learning in a participatory culture that has become the springboard for the group’s efforts to develop and test educational materials focused on preparing students for engagement with the new media landscape. He also was the founder for the Convergence Culture Consortium, a faculty network which seeks to build bridges between academic researchers and the media industry in order to help inform the rethinking of consumer relations in an age of participatory culture. The Consortium lives on today via the Transforming Hollywood conference, run jointly between USC and UCLA, which recently hosted its 8th event.
While at MIT, he was one of the principal investigators for The Education Arcade, a consortium of educators and business leaders working to promote the educational use of computer and video games. Jenkins also plays a significant role as a public advocate for fans, gamers and bloggers: testifying before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee investigation into “Marketing Violence to Youth” following the Columbine shootings; advocating for media literacy education before the Federal Communications Commission; calling for a more consumer-oriented approach to intellectual property at a closed door meeting of the governing body of the World Economic Forum; signing amicus briefs in opposition to games censorship; regularly speaking to the press and other media about aspects of media change and popular culture; and most recently, serving as an expert witness in the legal struggle over the fan-made film, Prelude to Axanar. He also has served as a consultant on the Amazon children’s series Lost in Oz, where he provided insights on world-building and transmedia strategies as well as new media literacy issues.
Jenkins has a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism from Georgia State University, a M.A. in Communication Studies from the University of Iowa and a PhD in Communication Arts from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Well, that didn’t seem so simple after all. For a somewhat more personal account of who I am, read on.
The first thing you are going to discover about me, oh reader of this blog, is that I am prolific as hell. The second is that I am also long-winded as all get out. As someone famous once said, “I would have written it shorter, but I didn’t have enough time.”
My earliest work centered on television fans – particularly science fiction fans. Part of what drew me into graduate school in media studies was a fascination with popular culture. I grew up reading Mad magazine and Famous Monsters of Filmland – and, much as my parents feared, it warped me for life. Early on, I discovered the joys of comic books and science fiction, spent time playing around with monster makeup, started writing scripts for my own Super 8 movies (The big problem was that I didn’t have access to a camera until much later), and collecting television-themed toys. By the time I went to college, I was regularly attending science fiction conventions. Through the woman who would become my wife, I discovered fan fiction. And we spent a great deal of time debating our very different ways of reading our favorite television series.
When I got to graduate school, I was struck by how impoverished the academic framework for thinking about media spectatorship was – basically, though everyone framed it differently, consumers were assumed to be passive, brainless, inarticulate, and brainwashed. None of this jelled well with my own robust experience of being a fan of popular culture. I was lucky enough to get to study under John Fiske, first at Iowa and then at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who introduced me to the cultural studies perspective. Fiske was a key advocate of ethnographic audience research, arguing that media consumers had more tricks up their sleeves than most academic theory acknowledged.
Out of this tension between academic theory and fan experience emerged first an essay, “Star Trek Reread, Rerun, Rewritten” and then a book, Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Textual Poachers emerged at a moment when fans were still largely marginal to the way mass media was produced and consumed, and still hidden from the view of most “average consumers.” As such, the book represented a radically different way of thinking about how one might live in relation to media texts. In the book, I describe fans as “rogue readers.” What most people took from that book was my concept of “poaching,” the idea that fans construct their own culture – fan fiction, artwork, costumes, music and videos – from content appropriated from mass media, reshaping it to serve their own needs and interests. There are two other key concepts in this early work which takes on greater significance in my work today – the idea of participatory culture (which runs throughout Convergence Culture) and the idea of a moral economy (that is, the presumed ethical norms which govern the relations between media producers and consumers).
As for the interview, here’s Jenkins’ introduction to the series and a portion of part one (from Comics and Popular Science: An Interview with Clifford V. Johnson (Part One) posted on November 15, 2017),
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.
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 looked for book reviews and found two. This first one is from Starburst Magazine, which strangely does not have the date or author listed (from the review),
… The Dialogues is a series of nine conversations about science told in graphic novel format; the conversationalists are men, women, children, and amateur science buffs who all have something to say about the nature of the universe. Their discussions range from multiverse and string theory to immortality, black holes, and how it’s possible to put just a cup of rice in the pan but end up with a ton more after Mom cooks it. Johnson (who also illustrated the book) believes the graphic form is especially suited for physics because “one drawing can show what it would take many words to explain” and it’s hard to argue with his noble intentions, but despite some undoubtedly thoughtful content The Dialogues doesn’t really work. Why not? Because, even with its plethora of brightly-coloured pictures, it’s still 200+ pages of talking heads. The individual conversations might give us plenty to think about, but the absence of any genuine action (or even a sense of humour) still makes The Dialogues read like very pretty homework.
Adelmar Bultheel’s December 8, 2017 review for the European Mathematical Society acknowledges issues with the book while noting its strong points,
So what is the point of producing such a graphic novel if the reader is not properly instructed about anything? In my opinion, the true message can be found in the one or two pages of notes that follow each of the eleven conversations. If you are not into the subject that you were eavesdropping, you probably have heard words, concepts, theories, etc. that you did not understand, or you might just be curious about what exactly the two were discussing. Then you should look that up on the web, or if you want to do it properly, you should consult some literature. This is what these notes are providing: they are pointing to the proper books to consult. …
This is a most unusual book for this subject and the way this is approached is most surprising. Not only the contents is heavy stuff, it is also physically heavy to read. Some 250 pages on thick glossy paper makes it a quite heavy book to hold. You probably do not want to read this in bed or take it on a train, unless you have a table in front of you to put it on. Many subjects are mentioned, but not all are explained in detail. The reader should definitely be prepared to do some extra reading to understand things better. Since most references concern other popularising books on the subject, it may require quite a lot of extra reading. But all this hard science is happening in conversations by young enthusiastic people in casual locations and it is all wrapped up in beautiful graphics showing marvellous realistic decors.
I am fascinated by this book which I have yet to read but I did find a trailer for it (from thedialoguesbook.com),