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Two Graphic Novels Explain Science, Colorfully


Youre listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Im Ira Flatow.

A little bit later, well be talking with actress Anna Deavere Smith about her health-care-themed one-woman show called Let Me Down Easy. But first, graphic novels. Have you read them? These adult comic books? They are no longer solely for superhero stories. Theyre really interesting, because more and more, theyre beginning to tell true stories, combining the cinematic elements of the illustrations and the details of the novel and a lot of times, you know, they talk about real-life issues.

In this hour, were going to look at two new science-oriented graphic novels. And the first one were going to look at is something about what is often discussed all the time and that - a lot of times, misunderstood. Its called Charles Darwins on the Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation. It not only takes you step-by-step through the actual Origin of Species, but also tells the story of Charles Darwins quest to write this seminal work. Its written by Michael Keller and really richly illustrated by Nicolle Rager Fuller. And the author is here to talk about explaining natural selection in comics. So, if youd like to talk about that, our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. You can tweet us @scifri.

I want to bring on Michael Keller, author and journalist. Welcome to the show.

Mr. MICHAEL KELLER (Author, Journalist): Hi, Ira. Its an honor to be with you today.

FLATOW: Well, this is a terrific book. I mean, how do you get the idea of explaining a complex scientific issue in, basically, what I call a comic-book style?

Mr. KELLER: Well, basically, we were just we were kind of excited about telling about evolution. Just the idea came to us to do it in the visual format, and what better way to do it then just to basically adapt kind of the foundation stone for the entire study of evolutionary biology?

FLATOW: And its told in a very interesting story way. How did you decide how you were going to tell the story?

Mr. KELLER: That kind of came up organically as I started, kind of, really diving into Darwins original work and started kind of confronting the Victorian-ness of exactly how I was going to adapt it to, you know, the modern reader and the modern mindset. And one of the things that kind of jumped out of me immediately was that a lot of the misunderstanding starts with we dont we look at him as we do most of these figures, who we consider to be geniuses, apart from the tapestry of the world that they lived in at the time. So, I wanted to bring people into his world first and show who he was, what the time was, all the amazing things that were going on and some of the crazy things, the revolutions and the Enlightenment and all of the new thought that was out there. It was like a cauldron.

And I just wanted to put it into perspective before jumping into the actual science of the origin.

FLATOW: Yeah. Its all - youve split it up into three parts, the book.

Mr. KELLER: Right, right. Theres the theres basically a biopic and, like, its kind of a time setter as part one. Part two is the adaptation, and part three is basically, okay. Heres this again, this amazing principle that was set down at this time. Fast-forward 150 years - what has been going on? You know, is it still the same, or, you know, whats been filled in since then?

FLATOW: Had you read the original Darwin before you jumped into this project?

Mr. KELLER: In large bits and pieces. Its interesting. My background in undergrad - I was in ecology. And it was something that we used pretty constantly, but just as a basic principle. It was not something that we needed to go back and study his actual words, which was actually a shame. But, you know, every text that you would deal with whether youre talking population genetics or, you know, evolution or embryology - is going to - or even ornithology or anything like that - is going to key off of the basic principles that he set forth. But you dont have to go back to 1859 to read it.

FLATOW: Lets go to the phones - Matt in Minneapolis. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

MATT (Caller): Thank you very much. I was just interested in asking the author - first of all, I think its a brilliant idea to do an illustrated graphic novel of The Origin of Species and how Darwin created and wrote it. I was wondering what other graphic novels have inspired, if any, that inspired your work. Were you inspired by Art Spiegelmans Maus, which, you know, won the Pulitzer Prize or R. Crumbs recent illustrated Bible? He did all of Genesis, that just came out recently. There have been a lot of great, like, you know, graphic novels in the non-superhero style written over the last, like, 10 years. And I was wondering if you looked to any of those to help inspire how you told the story and the illustration.

Mr. KELLER: Yes, great question. Actually, I did look yeah. I did look back to Spiegelman for Maus. I looked at I think it was - I might be messing it up here, but I believe it was Crumb who also did Kafka before the recent Bible one that he just did that I found totally interesting. And there was a couple of others that I looked at to try and - because one of the other problems with bringing it into the visual format was that what has - what The Origin of Species was is or what it was, was a - one long argument. And it was a scientific treatise. And what I needed to do was to bring it into - to basically create a narrative skeleton on which I could hang the meat off of.

FLATOW: Yeah. You need a storyline. Yeah, you needed - because they tell stories, graphic novels

Mr. KELLER: Right. Right.

FLATOW: like any good book. Yeah.

Mr. KELLER: Right. And its got to go from panel to panel. You have to go you the reader has to you know, you have to - youre taking the reader on a journey, which he did fantastically in his prose. But were - you know, this is - its basically a different media. Its a different format that were trying to set the narrative up in.

FLATOW: Kellen(ph) in Tempe, Arizona. Hi, welcome.

KELLEN (Caller): Hello. Thank you for having me. Mr. Keller, first off, I want to say kudos awesome job on this publication, and really thank you for your efforts in getting the Darwin message and the organic evolution to readers in another medium.

Mr. KELLER: Thank you, thanks. It was actually, it was a lot of fun to do. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLEN: My question for you is - I graduated from Arizona State Universitys Organic Evolution Program in Biology, and we did a lot of studying from the creationist movement, specifically studying guys like Ken Ham, etc. My question is whether you got any resistance from that community in the publishing process of this book?

Mr. KELLER: No, not at all. I mean, this is - the creative process is one, sort of its, I guess, sort of, was the - one of the paradigms of biology. Its a one-way process.


Mr. KELLER: So, you know, I was taking information in, but it was very specific as to trying to wrap my head around the science so that I could better tell the story.

FLATOW: So you did stay away from the religious debate that occurred therein. You didnt really touch very much on that in the book.

Mr. KELLER: Yeah, its the purpose of - the fun that I had in telling the story was thinking about myself, understanding how the idea works and how the concept is put together and where the spaces are and, you know, basically, creating a concrete foundation of the science.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. KELLER: So, its - you know, all the stuff that happened afterwards, we do touch on it a little bit just because, you know I mean, you cant not, at least, take one panel to mention that, you know, he created this thing, and thus the ground shook.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. KELLER: But beyond that I mean, thats - to me, thats extraneous to what we now understand to be the proven science of, you know, common descent and natural selection.

FLATOW: Well, its a great book, and Im just blown away by the illustrations and the story and how you got it all in there. And

Mr. KELLER: Nicolle did a great job.

FLATOW: She did.

Mr. KELLER: Shes a fantastic illustrator.

FLATOW: And, you know, its a must read, I think, by people in - studying it in school and people whove missed it and want to, you know, to reread it with the great illustration. So I want to thank you very much for taking time to be with us, and good luck on the book.

Mr. KELLER: Oh, thanks, Ira. Its really - its been an honor to talk to you.

FLATOW: Youre welcome. Michael Keller, author of Charles Darwins on the Origin of Species: A Graphic Adaptation with terrific illustrations by Nicolle Rager Fuller.

Were now going to bring on another guest, talking about another book of the same ilk, and that is Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth, a graphic novel that goes back to the foundations of logic to tell the story of logician Bertrand Russell.

You probably remember Bertrand Russell if youre old enough, and - as he tried to establish absolute truth in mathematics while also making sense of the world around him. And its really a tale of how one mans obsessive quest for logic almost leads to chaos. And the author is Apostolos Doxiadis, and he is here to talk with us about it. Thank you for being with us today.

Mr. APOSTOLOS DOXIADIS (Author, Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth): Thank you for inviting me.

FLATOW: You, too, have written a terrific book, very well illustrated, Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth. How did you decide to write this?

Mr. DOXIADIS: Well, I should say, first of all, that my coauthor is Christos Papadimitriou, a great computer scientist from Berkeley University. And were both signing this book together with the illustrators Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna.

I have a background in mathematics. And I studied mathematics at degree in graduate level. And although I soon after abandoned it for writing, its the love of it was always with me. And of from my student years, from my brush with mathematical truth - which was intense, even though it was quite short -the idea and the story that I found most interesting to me - emotionally interesting, perhaps, affected me emotionally, as well as intellectually - was this quest for foundation, this great insecurity that mathematicians felt around the end of the 19th century about the foundations, the basis of mathematical truth, and the quest which lasted a few decades and was masterminded by four or five people, Bertrand Russell among them, to establish mathematics on totally secure foundations.

What was particularly interesting to us as storytellers here - because Logicomix is really a story, it is their story was that this quest, in their cases, was not just motivated by intellectual concerns, but also by a deep, Id say, existential anxiety to find a meaning in existence.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Now I want to stop you there, because we have to take a break. But I want to come back and talk with you more about it. I want to introduce interrupt that very thoughty(ph), weighty thought you were about to give us. So were going to take a break and come back more and talk more about Logicomix: An Epic Search for the Truth with Apostolos Doxiadis, also coauthored by Christos H. Papadimitriou. So, stay with us. Well be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: Im Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: Youre listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. Im Ira Flatow. Were talking about a book. I like to call them adult comic books, but theyre really graphic novels. Logicomix: An Epic Search for the Truth with Apostolos Doxiadis and also coauthor Christos H. Papadimitriou - I knew I would get that one out. Not to be forgotten are the illustrators, Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna. Did I get those right?

Mr. DOXIADIS: Oh, yes. Perfect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I love Greek names. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Why pick Bertrand Russell, of all the people you could have picked?

Mr. DOXIADIS: Well, this is a sort of multi-headed monster, this tale, and there are about, I would say, four or five major protagonists. I think and, you know, were thought as storytellers here and not as popular writers or science writers, but as storytellers - that Bertrand Russell was the one that a modern reader might identify with most. Most of the other characters, major characters in this story led very, very secluded, very introverted lives, where - with mathematics at the centers and very little outside the center.

Bertrand Russell, on the contrary - rather uncharacteristically, perhaps, for the, at least for the cliche of the absentminded mathematician - was also a very articulate man, a man with a great sense of humor, cultivated, a political activist, a big flirt. And he had all those other rather colorful aspects to his character in life that made him a very ideal central character, but also a great narrator, because he is the narrator of the story within the story that forms the core of the book.


Mr. DOXIADIS: He has a particularly ironic, sarcastic - I would say, at times -style that is particularly well suited to a kind of narrative, which at the same time wants to be one, at the same time, engaged, but also quite distant from the issues it is examining.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you included a back-and-forth with a character, with Christos, a computer scientist, right, who worked with you, the coauthor.

Mr. DOXIADIS: Yes. And the reason we did that, in fact, was that as there was some slight disagreements about the meaning, lets say, of the story, I saw it more as a spiritual quest, the tale of almost like a Greek tragedy, a tale of hubris. We had some heroes in search for the absolute, almost heroes wanting to take the place of God, like many modern scientists have been - metaphorically seem to do in our culture, to get an absolute truth that it is not metaphysical, but scientific. And Christos saw it more as the preamble to the tale of the computer, because of the end of this story, we have Alan Turing and the birth of the ideas of the computer.


Mr. DOXIADIS: We decided it would be more interesting for us and for the reader, rather than try to iron out the differences between this, to include both aspects, both use of the tale inside the tale. And that is actually what happened in this framing story of Logicomix.

FLATOW: How do you juggle the actual illustrations? Some of them are quite graphic. Do they sometimes they almost overwhelm the story like they would in, you know, in a comic book where theres a lot of action. Im look at a page where it says, traitor. You messed with infinity. Youve wrecked the foundations, crash, boom, ba.

Mr. DOXIADIS: Okay. Well, you know, for the readers who have not seen the book, this is a nightmare. Okay, this is the illustration of a nightmare where Russell, after meeting Georg Cantor, the father of set theory, has because, exactly because Cantor was the man who was the first mathematician who had the courage to deal directly with infinity.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. DOXIADIS: He intends to look at infinity face to face, a venture for which - against which the great mathematician Gauss had warned. Russell sees Gauss in a nightmare, say that, you know, what have you done? You have eaten of the forbidden fruit you have of the tree of knowledge. What have you done? So because it is a nightmare, it is exaggerated.

But I think if one is using, you know, a new medium or any medium to tell a story, that one should try and use the language of that medium to the best advantage of the story without being squeamish about it being a story of scientists.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. DOXIADIS: So it is a comic book, and we are writing a comic book.

FLATOW: And its very well written. Lets go to Alan(ph) in Boise, Idaho. Hi, Alan.

ALAN (Caller): Hi, there.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

ALAN: Hey, I wanted to pipe in and just point out a couple of other comic books that have come out recently on the subject of science.


ALAN: Well, we have Rotary International put out a full-length comic book about the efforts to eradicate polio and a biography of Jonas Salk, and - which is, you know, I would recommend if you can find it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

ALAN: And theres another one called, The Stuff of Life, which is illustrated by Zander Cannon, which is a graphic guide


ALAN: to genetics and DNA.

FLATOW: We had them on last year.

ALAN: Oh, no kidding? Well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ALAN: Well, I can recommend both of those fine books, and Im sure theres quite a few more coming down the pike.

FLATOW: And well the are you what kind of reaction are you getting from this book? Are you getting positive reactions like this gentleman, Apostolos, who said, we need more of these?

Mr. DOXIADIS: Oh, well, yes. The reception of the book in both U.S. and the UK has been very, very positive. Weve had great reviews, great sales. We were quite surprised when we hit the top of The New York Times with (unintelligible) graphic novels. So we werent exactly expecting it, beating Batman and Superman and so on. But, and its been, you know

FLATOW: Isnt that amazing?

Mr. DOXIADIS: a great pleasure to do.

FLATOW: Isnt that amazing? You know, whenever you give whenever people can get science, theyll always drink it up, you know?


FLATOW: They cant get enough of this stuff. They just cant find it in most places.

Mr. DOXIADIS: Yes. Especially if its in a form in which they can feel that they can absorb and which doesnt scare them off.

FLATOW: Exactly. So where do you go from here? Do you have another graphic novel in mind?

Mr. DOXIADIS: Well, theres an idea of continuing this story from the - to the birth - from the ideas of Alan Turing to the computer age. But, you know, one of things about this particular novel was that it took five years to complete


Mr. DOXIADIS: full-time work for four people. So we had to be very cautious about what we promise.


Mr. DOXIADIS: But were certainly dreaming of a continuation.

FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you for taking time to take time out of your schedule to be with us today.

Mr. DOXIADIS: It was a pleasure.

FLATOW: Apostolos Doxiadis, who is a coauthor of the Logicomix: An Epic Search For The Truth. I highly recommend this book. You know, if youre looking for a holiday list, this is certainly one to put on it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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