Comics and conversations about the universe

In the world of comics, there’s a long list of scientists who gain superpowers for good or evil – the Hulk, Mr. Fantastic, Poison Ivy. But these heroes and villains rarely use their powers to advance science. Why not? And if they did, how would the story change?

A new comic book raises those questions — among many others about how the world works, and our place in it. It’s called “The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe,” written and drawn by USC physics professor Clifford Johnson.

He told Press Play that comics themselves are physics — because you have to read images in a certain sequence, and infer the passing of time and the spatial environment the story takes place in. “So you’re creating space and time, and space and time is the bread and butter of physics.”

Johnson is on a mission to get everyone regularly talking about science. “So much of our lives is controlled by scientific decisions. And so if we leave those decisions to specialists or science nerds to worry about, it’s not really a democracy. It shouldn’t be this nerdy thing, it should just be a thing. You talk about the latest royal wedding or whatever’s in the news now on the one hand, and then you switch over to stem cell research or string theory.”

The conversations in the book explore everything from the origins of the universe, to how time works, to how rice is made.

Johnson said, “That’s actually an amazing transformation, which makes you wonder — well how does that happen? What’s actually going on? Is the rice multiplying in some way, or is it getting bigger, and how do you test that?” And so, the siblings in the story design an experiment to find out.

He said the story is about the scientific process, scientific ideas, and the simple joy of how stuff works.

There are more complicated conversations in the book though, like whether we invent or discover mathematical ideas.

Listen to the full interview: