Friday, April 20, 2018

Graphic Novel Review: Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery

Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery. Darryl Cunningham, 264 pages, 2017.


Even though I'm a history teacher, I'm a big fan of science. I mean, who isn't? Part of history and change over time is invention and innovation, technology and progress. The story of science is the story of humanity's understanding of the world around us, so...what's not to love? The stories of the scientists behind the science are equally fascinating, and some of my favorite nonfiction graphic novels have been about these people and their discoveries.

Darryl Cunningham has become one of my favorite graphic novel authors and artists, with books like Psychiatric Tales, Science Tales, Supercrash, and How to Fake a Moon Landing. He specializes in nonfiction, and his heavily stylized art is a complement for the stories he tells.

Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery is Cunningham's latest book, and the anthology is an outstanding collection of stories I hadn't heard before, and scientists I hadn't met.

Cunningham chooses seven scientists who often get overlooked for one reason or another, in favor of "larger lights" of history. But without these seven, our lives and understanding of the universe would be vastly different. The seven profiled:
  • Antoine LaVoisier
  • Mary Anning
  • George Washington Carver
  • Alfred Wegener
  • Nikola Tesla
  • Jocelyn Bell-Burnell
  • Fred Hoyle

Some of these I had heard of (Carver and Tesla), but most of them were unknowns. They weren't Darwin or Einstein or Newton...and that's Cunningham's goal. Introducing readers to these scientists who "for reasons of gender, race, mental health, poverty -- excessive wealth, even -- have not won the recognition they deserve. Overlooked, sidelined, excluded, discredited: key figures in scientific discovery take a bow in this alternative Nobel prize gallery." 

As with the best graphic novels about science, Cunningham balances the personal lives of the scientists with their discoveries and inventions. LaVoisier, who proved the Law of the Conservation of Mass (matter can neither be created nor destroyed), discovered that the classical elements (air, water, fire) were actually comprised of discrete atoms, and gave us the forerunner of the periodic table...was executed in the Terror in 1793 in Paris. Mary Anning became a self-trained paleontologist partially to survive -- she was selling the fossils she found in the chalk cliffs near her home on the English coast. She was never allowed to receive formal training as either a geologist (women weren't allowed yet) or paleontologist (it didn't exist as a field of study), but became the preeminent expert in the field...but lived in poverty her entire life. 

There are issues of race and gender -- George Washington Carver was probably gay, although there isn't much in the way of concrete evidence to support the notion; Tesla was likely asexual, but again, people weren't tweeting their gender identity to the world back then, so private matters of these scientists stayed awfully private. 

Some of the most interesting stories were about the biggest ideas possible: how do we know about plate tectonics, and the concept of Pangea? I suppose the biggest idea ever is the big bang theory...where that came from is included in this book. Both stories are fascinating, both about scientists whose lives were touched by tragedy. 

After reading these seven stories, you come away with a new respect for the work that goes into science. The careful observation, the patience, the experimentation...leading to dead ends every time...until it doesn't. That spark of excitement that disrupts the world as we know it is in every story, and Cunningham captures that beautifully here. Whether you're a science teacher or a fan of inclusion and social justice, or just someone interested in how we understand the world around us, you'll find a lot to love in Graphic Science: Seven Journeys of Discovery.




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