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The science writing I’m most excited about — with no science

benlillie

My friend Maki Naro is running a Kickstarter and I’m incredibly excited about it. In particular, I’m excited about what it means for science writing.

Which is weird, because it’s very definitely not a science comic. The Kickstarter page makes no mention of science (except in one reward tier — I’ll come back to that), and Maki himself told me, “it’s not about science.”

It gets even weirder. Maki is one of the authors of sci-ence, a webcomic entirely about, well, science. It’s wonderful, he draws beautiful illustrations and storylets, and below them has a nice explanation of the science involved. Along with xkcd and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, I think it’s one of the best science comics on the web. In contrast, the new comic, Sufficiently Remarkable, is a continuing narrative about four people, none scientists. It’s a radical departure.

So, why am I so excited?

For that, let’s go back to an art gallery in Chelsea a few years ago. An art curator friend was taking me around to some of the interesting new exhibits opening. So we went to see a show by Dario Robleto about music and nostalgia. He played with the idea of musicians and decay. There were, for example, objects created by crushing up and moulding his old mix tapes. Then I turned the corner, and saw a huge print of the Hubble Deep Field — a look into a tiny patch of sky, which turns out to be filled with countless galaxies*. It’s one of the most iconic images in all of science.

Only it wasn’t the HDF. It was the image above, “Candles Un-burn, Suns Un-shine, Death Un-dies,” which was created by Robleto. He took stage lights from album covers of musicians who had died young and arranged them to look like the Hubble Deep Field. The remarkable thing about this is that it wasn’t a “science art” exhibit. There had been nothing in the press about science or astronomy (I went back to the press release and checked). This had simply been the image he had reached for to make the art he wanted to make. 

Immediate after the Robleto exhibit we went next door and essentially the same exact thing happened with another artist** and Earthrise.

This is fantastic — at least for someone like me who is obsessed with the idea that science should be a normal part of culture, and not some weird thing that strange robotic people in white lab coats do. I’m continually frustrated that science is walled off, that it’s a thing only “science people” do or think about or talk about, that it’s a neutral, emotionless, disconnected thing. Quite the opposite, it’s deeply a part of everyone’s life (Hello iPhone! Hello penicillin! Hello view of the world as consisting of things that obey regular, discoverable laws, a view that informs how we approach key questions whether we realize it or not!)

But when science is generally presented, people are very careful to package it right. It’s clearly marked, “science” on the box, so no one is surprised or confused. And if it’s labelled “science” we’re assured it will have proper facts and informations and at the end we will have been educamated without having to worry about being moved or emoting excessively.*** I’d love to see us moving away from that labeling, toward having science simply be a wide-ranging part of the culture, generally present and unremarked upon. Maybe it’s naiveté, but I think that if we can make that happen, find a way to let science be something that people care about on a personal, informal, level, then everything else we talk about — belief in evidence, understanding of the uncertainty that comes with every measurement, a general baseline of scientific “literacy” — will follow.

And that’s what’s so amazing about those two art exhibits. They did exactly that. In the art world at least, it’s starting to happen. And that’s what I’d like to see in movies and TV and music and newspapers and novels and, clearly, comics.

And that’s the point. There will be science in the comic, because of who Maki is — he’s spent years writing about it. His previous job (which he just quit to work on comics full time) was for the World Science Festival. And if that’s not enough, one of the reward tiers is, “Maki will name a scientific theory, postulate, or concept in the comic after you.” (Other things that can be named after you: brands of liquor and brands of cigars.) The science will be there — no pressure to learn, no signals of an in-group and out-group, just there. Right where it should be.

*Actually, you can count. It’s around 3000.

**Whose name I sadly forget.

***OK, I’m being hyperbolic here. This is how I feel on bad days. There is wonderful, wonderful emotive, moving stuff out there. And there are many, many fantastic things full of facts and education. I just get sad that the second is how everything is expected to be, and the first are the exceptions.

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