The Dialogues: Illustrated Conversations About the Most Thrilling Frontiers of Science by Theoretical Physicist and Self-Taught Artist Clifford Johnson
By Maria Popova
“Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in extolling the magic of real human conversation. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” Such unsurpassed amplification of understanding is why dialogue has reigned as monarch of thought-transformation at least since the days of Plato. It is not coincidental that Galileo reconfigured our understanding of the universe in a revolutionary treatise he titled Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, nor that it was in dialogue James Baldwin and Margaret Mead reached insight into the question of race tenfold deeper and more nuanced than anything today’s ping-pong of opinions produces.
That mighty conduit of understanding is what English theoretical physicist and Scientific Controversies alumnus Clifford Johnson employs in The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe (public library) — a most unusual visual eavesdropping on a cast of intelligent, relatable characters discussing some of the most fascinating frontiers of science.
Strikingly, Johnson illustrated the book himself — one of the world’s preeminent scientific minds, specializing in particle physics and superstring theory, he took a semester off teaching to teach himself to draw. I hesitate to call the result a “graphic novel,” a term unfit for a work of nonfiction — perhaps “cosmic comic” would be more accurate, though this seems to somehow diminish the depth and richness of the subjects Johnson explores, among which are black holes, relativity, string theory, quantum electrodynamics, the question of whether the universe is infinite or finite, or whether it is even a universe or a multiverse.
Much of the dialogue ventures boldly into the borderland of science and philosophy, that seductive lacuna between truth and meaning. A man on a train asks his travel companion whether mathematics is invented or discovered. “I’m down on the side that says we can think of all kinds of crazy things inspired by nature,” she answers, “but it doesn’t mean that those things are in nature. You know, we take an idea and we extrapolate. We are imaginative creatures. But we don’t discover the mathematics, we’re making it up.” Skeptical, the man asks whether this means that Newton invented calculus, “even though it turns out that it is everywhere around us in nature.” “Ah, but is it? Is it really?” his companion counters, then launches into an elegant defense of her invention hypothesis:
There are a great many unsubtle ways to address diversity as an issue of social justice, from polemic proclamations to crude finger-pointing to passive complaint. All of them are, in my view, invariably inferior to what is perhaps the only effective approach: Simply enacting, without fuss and fanfare, a juster alternative. That is what Johnson — a black Englishman himself — accomplishes by populating his panels with characters of varied races, genders, and nationalities, who interpolate between the roles of explainer and explainee without any dominant pattern of authority. A black woman explains relativity and spacetime to a white man. A Hispanic family commences an inquiry into the origin of matter around the dinner table. A black man helps a white woman see the beauty of Maxwell’s equations. But there is no trace of the endemic identity politics afflicting so much of contemporary culture. Instead, what emerges is a celebration of the poetics of curiosity, serenading the most elemental core of being human — that is, of being creatures born to wonder about the universe, our place in it, and what it all means.
One chapter tackles the abiding perplexity of why we long for immortality in a universe governed by constant change:
When the immortality-skeptic points out that religions tend to be “all about power in one form or another,” her companion glooms over how depressing it is to view life as bereft of meaning. (Where is Alan Watts to ungloom him with the perfect quip that “if the universe is meaningless, so is the statement that it is so”?) In a sentiment kindred to physicist Sean Carroll’s notion of “poetic naturalism,” she suggests that death is a source of life. When her new friend mistakes this for the contrived notion of “pushing daisies,” she invites him to contemplate a model of greater complexity and, paradoxically, of great simplicity — one that begins with daisies and ends with the universe itself:
Unconvinced, her companion counters that this is a circular argument — something must be alive in order for it to be dead. A star, he asserts — apparently never having seen Carl Sagan’s stellar primer — is not alive. Taking him through the chemical composition of stars — a landmark discovery by pioneering astrophysicist Cecilia Payne — she likens the chemical cycle of stars, fertilized by gravity, to a botanical system in which a plant lives by synthesizing vital elements from the air and water before dying and returning those elements to the soil, where they come to nurture other life forms, including us. Still unwilling to let go of his reluctance, he reminds her that they began with the question of love, which he sees as inseparable from the notion of an inner essence, a soul. Without seeing the soul as immortal, he asserts with growing discomposure, life would be meaningless. Calmly, patiently, having seen that dry reason has failed to persuade, she offers an illustrative analogy instead:
Complement Johnson’s The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe with neuroscientists Hana Roš and Matteo Farinella’s comic about how the brain works, then revisit mathematician Marcus du Sautoy on the most alluring edges of the unknown and theoretical cosmologist Roberto Trotta’s poetic illustrated primer on the universe, written using only the 1,000 most common English words.
Page illustrations courtesy of MIT Press
Published December 7, 2017