Professor writes science graphic novel

Scientific concepts govern the universe, but according to USC professor Clifford Johnson, sometimes they can be difficult to understand — not because they are hard, but because people are wrongfully told that they cannot master them, he said.

Clifford Johnson, an astronomy and physics professor, combines pop culture with astronomy in his graphic novel. Photo from the MIT Press.

In November 2017, Johnson published the graphic novel Dialogues: Conversations About the Nature of the Universe. With visuals and a conversation-based approach, Johnson hopes to expose the general public to basic scientific principles and enforce the idea that anyone can engage with science.

According to Johnson, the media heavily espouses the idea that it is difficult for the general public to understand scientific principles. Therefore, instead of making a textbook aimed at the scientific community, Johnson set out to make a graphic novel that could creatively explain science for everyone to understand.

“People shut down,” Johnson said. “People stop keeping themselves open to appreciating scientific ideas because they’re already told that it’s going to be hard.”

Through the visual medium of the graphic novel, Johnson attempted to help people outside of the community better understand science. The novel takes a conversational approach to breaking down complex concepts and relaying them in a way that humanizes scientists.

“It allowed me to show that these people are out there in the world, as opposed to just being in the lab,” Johnson said.

To give the graphic novel authenticity, Johnson learned to draw at a level where he could illustrate the work himself. Since such a book had not been published before, Johnson felt that the only way to find out if completing this project was possible was to finish it himself.

“There certainly has been a push toward more nonfiction comics in recent years, including comics by scientists,” said USC professor Henry Jenkins, who conducts research on comics and has worked with Johnson through the Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities. “But I don’t know of any case where the scientist is also the cartoonist. Where a scientist on Dr. Johnson’s level translated his own ideas directly in the comics as a form.”

Being both the illustrator and writer of his book gave Johnson more control over how the scientific concepts are presented. In his mind, this makes the ideas more accurate and reduces the risk of translation errors.

“The science is the core of the book,” Johnson said. “It’s about ideas, and so you’re seeing those ideas being discussed.”

At USC, Johnson also founded the USC Science Film Competition during the 2011-2012 academic year to get more people involved with science. An annual event, the contest has teams of USC students from varying disciplines make a video explaining a scientific concept. This way, they can develop the skills needed to break down science in a more engaging format.

The competition also serves to establish connections between students who will go on to be scientists or those who will have roles in the media. Johnson believes some of the problems in media representation of science stem from a lack of exchange between the science and media communities. Bridging the gap between the two fields can improve the way science is portrayed in the future, he said, thus inspiring more people to get involved in the field.

“The people who are going to be in the media are the people who need to know this, as well as the people who are creating the scientific ideas and making discoveries,” Johnson said. “They also need to learn how to communicate.”

Aside from working on his novel, Johnson also served as a science adviser for books, television shows and films like Thor: Ragnarok, Agent Carter and Genius. Most of Johnson’s advice is aimed at creating fantasy worlds that run with scientific logic and consistency so  their overall story arcs make more sense and remain entertaining for all audiences.

According to Johnson, removing scientists from the context of a lab or classroom setting can engage more kinds of people and create a more informed world. Being given examples of science functioning in different settings can help audiences feel less intimidated and want to try it out for themselves.

“Right now there are very narrow perceptions as to who does science and who has access to science and who engages with science,” Johnson said. “And those perceptions are wrong.”