The Dialogues. Conversations about the Nature of the Universe

Clifford V. Johnson is a physics professor at the University of Southern California who is often asked as advisor for science programs on television. He often appears himself in the media, he is active on the web, and he gives popularising science lectures. You may for example look up his 2012 TED-Ed Lecture about String theory and the hidden structures of the universe or find out about his blog called Asymptotia.

Many theoretical physicists and mathematicians have written popularising books on elementary particles, cosmology, and the theory of everything like Big Bang: The Origin of the Universe (Simon Singh). Some other examples have been reviewed here like Our Mathematical Universe (Max Tegmark); The Emperor's New Mind (Roger Penrose); Calculating the Cosmos (Ian Stewart); Theories of Everything (Frank Close); A Beautiful Question (Frank Wilczek); Fashion, Faith, and Fantasy in the New Physics of the Universe (Roger Penrose) to name just a few. You might consider this book to be another contribution in this style, except that the concept is totally different. In all the previously mentioned examples, the author acts as an expert in the field who is explaining the material in a more or less accessible way to the reader. Johnson may have been inspired by classical examples of Plato or Galileo who have instructed the reader by having some characters discussing the subject and report this in a book in the form of dialogues. Also Paul Ribenbaum's Prime Numbers, Friends Who Give Problems contains a "trialogue" on number theory following the same idea. But Johnson's concept is different yet. There is not an all-knowing person who is directing the conversation. In this case, it are conversations between ordinary people (some of them are scientists, but I believe they can also be considered to be ordinary people) who have a conversation which comes at some point down to particle physics or cosmology, but they are also discussing many other things as well. One thing leads to another like conversations usually run in practice. It is just like the reader happens to be in the same place which may be a costume party, a restaurant, a train, a museum, a coffee shop, or a sunny terrace, and he or she accidentally overhears what the two are discussing about. Thus there is no "instructor" who is "teaching" the reader but the discussion is between people looking for an answer themselves. The most surprising, and certainly the most unusual, is that everything is presented to the reader as a graphic novel. Sydney Padua did something similar in his (bio)graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage. However in the latter, the pictures are in black and white and the characters are true caricatures. The drawing style here is much more realistic and in colour. The background attributes and the decors are remarkably detailed and realistic and we are observing the conversation from all possible physical perspectives literally like a fly on the wall. Some samples of the pictures used in the book can be seen on the book's website where also the link to a YouTube video with samples can be found.

So what is the point of producing such a graphic novel if the reader is not properly instructed about anything? In my opinion, the true message can be found in the one or two pages of notes that follow each of the eleven conversations. If you are not into the subject that you were eavesdropping, you probably have heard words, concepts, theories, etc. that you did not understand, or you might just be curious about what exactly the two were discussing. Then you should look that up on the web, or if you want to do it properly, you should consult some literature. This is what these notes are providing: they are pointing to the proper books to consult. You find something like "On page x, in panels y-z subject S is discussed" and then the note is telling you where you can read more about whatever came up there, or there is some note about a formula (yes there are formulas! – for example the Maxwell equations and their modification to include relativity theory). Several of the books mentioned above are referred to. In fact Wilczek who authored one of them, also wrote the preface for this book.

As a consequence, the reader has to do some homework if he/she wants to learn something here. The material is not simple and it is not much easier just because it is in the form of a graphic novel. All the difficult concepts and buzz words of the topic pop up sooner of later in the conversations. You overhear discussions about multiverses, the cosmological constant, gluons, the Higgs particle, string theory, D-branes, relativity theory, a dispute about mathematics being invented or discovered, or the existence of God, and there are black holes, quantum field theory, gauge theory, quantum gravity, gravitational waves and the LIGO, and so much more. Is there a happy ending? Perhaps not in the usual sense, but it gives a message of hope at least for the layperson who is still completely lost. The last conversation happens in a bus. The mother tells her daughter that string theorists have an extra brain that can think in all those extra dimensions, whereupon a third person joins in and claims that it is not true. Some twelve pages later she concludes her arguments saying that scientists do not need special brains different from ours. When she is asked whether she is a scientist, she answers "No, but I love learning about science like you". And she gives some good advise for the daughter: Thus if you want to become a scientist, you do not need special brains. It's all about being interested and hard work to develop the skills and tools to answer the questions your curiosity will come up with.

This is a most unusual book for this subject and the way this is approached is most surprising. Not only the contents is heavy stuff, it is also physically heavy to read. Some 250 pages on thick glossy paper makes it a quite heavy book to hold. You probably do not want to read this in bed or take it on a train, unless you have a table in front of you to put it on. Many subjects are mentioned, but not all are explained in detail. The reader should definitely be prepared to do some extra reading to understand things better. Since most references concern other popularising books on the subject, it may require quite a lot of extra reading. But all this hard science is happening in conversations by young enthusiastic people in casual locations and it is all wrapped up in beautiful graphics showing marvellous realistic decors.

Adhemar Bultheel
Book details

In this graphic novel, the reader is witnessing conversations between people discussing cosmology and particle physics and the possible theory of everything. Each of the eleven conversations are followed by notes pointing to other books where details about the topic that was discussed can be found.

Author:  Publisher: 
978-0-262-03723-5 (hbk)
£ 24.95 (hbk)