Scientists as Super Heroes

This post is based on a conversation I had with Jim Ottaviani, a nuclear engineer, reference librarian, and award-winning writer of non-fiction comics about scientists since 1997.

Two minutes into the conversation with Jim, I learned that he had worked on a number of nuclear plants, caddied on the professional golf tour, and chauffeured then-Senator Al Gore on an early tour of the Information Superhighway. When I asked who or what influenced him as a child, his answer was, “better living through science,” a variant of a DuPont ad campaign that Millennials are not going to get.

 

What a Nuclear Scientist Really Does

As it turns out, a nuclear engineer doesn’t handle a lot of uranium. “I’ve given up the hope of ever getting super powers because I’ve been exposed to radiation or dangerous chemicals,” Jim said. “I’ve been in all sorts of laboratories and none of them have made me super-fast, super-smart, or able to fly. No super powers of any kind.”

In the real world, a nuclear engineer handles a lot of paperwork, making sure that power plants are as safe as possible. “There’s a lot of testing and mathematical modeling to ensure compliance with zillions of regulations,” said Jim. He also learned an interesting skill that I can’t quite visualize. He knows how to put on and take off his clothes without touching the outside of them. Try this at home and let me know how it works. Uh, no videos, please.

From Nuclear Engineer to Library Scientist

Jim traveled the world as a nuclear engineer but his 9-month tours of duty were to out of the way places where they actually build nuclear power plants. As a serial masters-degree student at the University of Michigan, Jim realized that what he really liked doing was research. “I took a library science class or two to get better at doing research and I liked it well enough to change careers.” 

An avid reader as a kid, Jim showed no early signs of becoming a comics writer, though he did read comics out of the newspaper. Yes, people used to do that. In his own words, “I was a pretty geeky kid before it was anything close to cool.” He described his career as a “steady move down the income ladder,” from nuclear engineer to librarian, and finally to comics writer.

Blame My Brother Billy and Frank Miller

Jim assigns blame to his younger brother Billy for sending him down the path of writing comics. Other than the aforementioned newspaper comics, Jim didn’t read comics regularly until he was home on break from college and picked his brother Billy’s Marvel comics. To Jim’s surprise, some were really good. Those were written and drawn by a fellow named Frank Miller. Though Miller is now known to the general public, thanks to Sin City, and more recently 300, two movies based almost entirely on his creation, he wasn’t widely known at the time. Jim said, “It was the quality of his work that attracted me to comics in the first place.                                                                                                    

When asked how he describes his work, Jim replied, “I don’t have a preference between comic books or graphic novels. It’s a format rather than a genre and neither is perfect. It’s like my being a vegetarian: that doesn’t mean I only eat leafy green vegetables. But I don’t think un-carnivorous is going to catch on.”

How to Get a Creative Project Off the Ground

Jim’s first comic was Two Fisted Science, featuring stories about Richard Feynman, Galileo Galilei, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and more. “It was an homage to two 1950s-comics called Two Fisted Tales and Weird Science,” Jim said. “With permission, I smooshed titles and logos together because it seemed like the perfect title for an anthology mainly about physicists.”

It’s interesting how ideas appear,” Jim said. “The panel images pop into your head.” For Two Fisted Science, the challenge was to figure out which stories to discard as the plot lines existed in real life. “I had to decide on the best bits about Feynman’s life or Galileo versus the Church. It was a matter of thinking page one, panel one over and over.”

On Panic and Getting Stuff Done Anyway

Jim is adept at replicating the panic he felt as a student in physics class. “I get the same feeling every time I sit down to make a new book. I arrive at each project with my brain, pencil, and paper (or rather, their modern analog, a keyboard, and a blinking cursor), with no clue as to how to solve the problem of writing a comics script.”

Returning to the Fundamental Idea

As he explained it to me, Jim makes his way through that panicked feeling by returning (often repeatedly) to the fundamental image or idea that got him excited about doing the book in the first place. His curiosity and passion for the subject eventually become words. And those words take form as dialogue, panel descriptions, pages, spreads, and scenes. Jim said, “all of a sudden (well, many months later, and thanks to heavy lifting by an artist) there it is, a new world, fresh for me to marvel at and enjoy as if I were discovering how gravity works like Isaac Newton.”

Work by Day. Write at Night. Creative Super Heroes

I asked Jim to describe what a good writing day looked like. As it turns out, his writing day starts at night, around 8:00 p.m. and ends in the vicinity of midnight. “As I get older, my ability to get up the next day and go to work diminishes but I really like writing at night. I think it’s the sense that everything is dark and timeless.”

Jim also writes on weekends but he doesn’t write on his lunch break, saying, “like everyone else, I use my lunch break to fool around on the web, and since I’m also a publisher I do business things, like track the industry.”

On Collaboration and Doing Work You Love

“One of the delights of writing comics is the collaborative process of working with illustrators. I send the artists a big stack of images and stick figure layouts, which they probably laugh at. It’s interesting, but the artists always want my awful drawings. Sometimes they don’t want to think about what to draw, and while my approach to depicting a scene may not be the best solution, at least it is one, and it works.

On Writing

When I asked about the kinesthetic part of writing, Jim agreed that there are certain pencils and papers that just feel better in the hand when you’re drawing. To get the satisfying click associated with a typewriter, he bought an old Macintosh keyboard that clacks away when he types. 

On Style and Approach

“Each character wants a different style and approach. The invention of calculus happened independently by Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz but the two behaved really badly toward one another. Scientists have egos just like everyone else so we staged the encounter as a bar fight in an English pub. But we portrayed the meeting in Copenhagen between Heisenberg and Bohr straight up, using a classic illustration style, not at all cartoony.” 

In the Company of Nobel Laureates

Jim’s second book, Dignifying Science, tells the stories of 5 women who made substantial scientific contributions. The comic included Lise Meitner, an important but under-recognized nuclear physicist in the 1920s and ‘30s. Copies of the book made their way to Stockholm and Jim was contacted by the secretary of the physics prize committee. When Jim read the message, his reaction was, “Nobel committee, sure. That’s spam.” A little while later, he realized that, “Wow, it is from the Nobel prize committee.” Jim kept up the correspondence, with a standing invitation to meet next time he was overseas.

Come 2001, Jim was in Rome visiting his wife who was there on a 6-month assignment. Here’s how Jim described the situation. “We were trying to decide how I should best do my impersonation of a pack mule, helping her move all her stuff back, with a stop to visit friends in England. Then I suggested, it’s November, almost winter, shouldn’t we go to Scandinavia?  Because if you’re going to really experience the place it should be when it’s dark and cold and damp.”

Jim sent a note to his Nobel contact, saying he and his wife were coming up in late November and that he’d like to meet over lunch. In addition to lunch, Jim was invited to speak at the museum’s Fall creativity forum. He looked at his wife Kat and said, “what do I do?”  Kat advised Jim to accept. “Yeah,” he said. “But if I say yes, I’ll actually have to do it, not just be able to say I did it.”

So, they went to Stockholm and were put up in the hotel where all of the Nobel Laureates stay.  “It was great,” Jim said. “Stockholm is a charming city, even in the cold and gray. At the end of it, I got a medal commemorating Lise Meitner, who did not win a Nobel prize and should have for her work in nuclear fission. It was a terrific experience even though I didn’t end up with a Nobel prize, nor a million dollars.”

Your Practical Creativity Takeaway 

It’s okay to panic when you start something new. Just don’t let the panicky feeling of not knowing how or where to begin to hold you back. Like Jim, return to the core concept that got you excited in the first place. Think about it. Play with it. And keep working it. Before you know it, the idea of what you want to do will be so alive and real that the panicky feelings will take up less and less of your emotional real estate. Carry on and create something incredible.

Addendum

In the time since my conversation with Jim, he has produced a succession of bestsellers that celebrate scientists and reveal their human imperfections. This holds true for Jim’s most recent comic, The Imitation Game: Alan Turing Decoded.

Learn more about Jim’s rich and varied background.