Friday, March 17, 2017

Exploring the Mysteries of the Universe with Sara Latta and Jeff Weigel of 'Smash!'

In the eye-popping graphic novel Smash!, arriving this April, two cousins, Nick and Sophie, take a tour of the Large Hadron Collider, the world's largest machine. Researchers at the European Organization for Nuclear Research use the collider to accelerate particles and smash them together. They study the results to find the hidden building blocks of matter. The trip’s a chance for Nick and Sophie to explore what the universe is made of—and what holds it all together. It also gives readers a new window into the history of particle physics, captured by Sara Latta’s witty, intensively-researched script, as well as Jeff Weigel’s inventive artwork.

To learn more about how this feat of pop science came together, and the challenges of explaining complex concepts in a visual manner, the Lerner blog asked Sara and Jeff to unpack their process.

Sara, let’s start with a question for you: When did you first begin to see the potential for a book about the Large Hadron Collider, and about a history of particle physics? Did you know from the start that you wanted to pursue it in the form of a graphic novel, or did that come later?

Sara Latta: It must have been around 2010. My husband is a particle physicist, and he was part of the collaboration searching for the Higgs boson* at the LHC. So we’d had lots of dinner table conversations about the search for the Higgs boson, and I thought it would be exciting if I could somehow find a way to make the science accessible to younger readers. I knew from the start that I wanted it to be illustrated; at first I had something in mind like Larry Gonick’s excellent series of cartoon guides to science. At the same time, I was starting to read a lot of graphic novels as well as graphic nonfiction (thanks to my kids!), and saw the potential of using visual and literary narrative to explain some pretty complex ideas. I knew and admired Jeff’s work, and approached him at a conference to ask if he’d be interested in working with me on this project. Thanks for saying yes, Jeff!

* Scientists found evidence of the Higgs boson, an elusive particle, as a result of work conducted at the European Organization for Nuclear Research. The Higgs boson had been suspected to exist since the 1960s, and its detection reinforces the ‘Standard Model’ of particle physics (the most widely-accepted theory of particles and their interactions).

Jeff, what were your initial reactions to the idea? Did your brain start buzzing immediately? Any moments when you wondered, ‘How the heck will we do that on a comics page?’

Jeff Weigel: I’m a great believer in the medium of comics, and I’ve also done a lot of layperson’s reading on the history of physics, atomic structure, and astrophysics. The idea of employing comics to explain these subjects to kids immediately intrigued me when Sara brought it up. Comics’ potential to teach and convey abstract ideas isn’t mined nearly enough, and the challenge of dealing with these sorts of subjects graphically felt like it was right in my wheelhouse. I immediately told Sara I was on board if she decided to move ahead with it. Once I got her early script draft, I did—I’ll confess—wonder just how to convey a lot of the wonky subject matter in visuals that would make her ideas clear. Thumbnailing out the action in this book is absolutely the toughest comics storytelling problem I’ve ever tackled.

Sara: I want to add, Jeff, that your expertise in the visual aspects of storytelling absolutely brought the wonky aspects to life! One of my favorite examples is where you illustrated a description of particle collisions with a scene in which Sophie and Nick play pool. I love the way in which the ordinary act of pool balls colliding is transformed into the tracks of a particle collision.

OK now, a question for you both—what surprised you the most about the end result?

Jeff: The most surprising thing about the book to me was how tricky and delicate a storytelling problem it turned out to be. There’s got to be a consistent internal logic to how the characters react to and interact with all the impossible things that the narrative presents to them: conversations with dead scientists, interaction with diagrams and demonstrations of abstract ideas, transitions between the real world and an imagined world, etc. For instance, if the kids meet Albert Einstein, how should they react—should they be shocked? excited? awed?—or just treat it like an ordinary conversation, since the whole thing happens in their imagination as they discuss scientific principles? Allowing the kids to, say, stand on top of [an imagined, physical version of] the formula “E=mc2” hinged on important and delicate choices as we tried to keep the reader in the story without wondering, “How did that happen?” We can ask the reader to suspend disbelief as long as there’s an internal logic to how the surrealism is presented. If we violated that logic, the reader would be distracted and confused.

Sara: Scientific progress can move quickly, and sometimes unpredictably. When I first began thinking about the book, the Higgs boson had not yet been discovered, and so my thinking about the book was about the progress toward a scientific discovery. By the time we finished the book, and while the book was in production, the Higgs boson had not only been discovered but there was some evidence that the scientists at the LHC might have discovered a new Higgs-like particle. Fortunately for us (but maybe not for science), the data didn’t pan out, so we didn’t have to make significant changes to the book. Writing about cutting-edge science really keeps you on your toes!

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