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.

The First Virtual Reality

Author Jonathan Gotschall

Author Jonathan Gotschall

 
 
 
 
 

Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, talked with Charlie Rose several months ago, about all things tech, but a good portion of the conversation was around the emergence of virtual reality. They discussed how VR is driving advances in medical diagnostic tools, but the conversation also covered mind-bending twists on our perception that begs the question what is real?

Let’s go back in time to look for the answer. “Tens of thousands of years ago, when the human mind was young and our numbers were few, we were telling one another stories,” Jonathan Gottschall writes in his book, The Storytelling Animal. He makes the case that then, as now, our species is addicted to storytelling. But when I heard Reid Hoffman enthusing about the potential of virtual reality, it reminded me of something Gottschall had said.

STORYTELLING AS VIRTUAL REALITY

Gottschall proposed that stories were our first virtual reality experience, much like the flight simulators used to train pilots by putting them in potentially disastrous situations where the consequences are dire.

Stories were the homo sapiens equivalent of virtual reality, a vicarious yet visceral experience of something dangerous, a calamity to be avoided, an over-the-top heroic escape from something big, bad, and really scary.

SCARY AS A TOOL FOR SURVIVAL

Dr. Mathias Clasen, assistant professor of literature and media with Aarhus University, Denmark, suggests that watching horror movies can stimulate deep memories of frightening situations that our 21st-century selves no longer encounter.

According to Dr. Clasen, “When our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers in the East African savannah … they had to train their reactions to stressful situations, and the desire to do so became stored in their DNA – which we still carry today. When we watch a horror movie, we’re satisfying that desire. We’re training our danger preparedness.”

To watch, read or hear a frightening story is to experience a reality generated by someone else that our nervous system claims for its own. In other words, scary, though not the only way to learn, appears to be an effective way to learn how to survive.

THE STUFF OF LORE AND LEGEND

Australian podcaster Claire Testoni produces The Singing Bones, a deliciously scary telling of folktales, stories about the earlier, dark side of humanity; jealousy, greed, hatred, revenge. Maybe our worst selves are the basis for the other, the monster that snatches children in the night, invades mead halls, and sings sailors to their death with siren songs.  

Testoni notes that until the Brothers Grimm released their first volume of sanitized German folk tales, we didn’t have fairy tales, literally little flying creatures thought to be based on Celtic traditions of the other, known as wee folk. Before fairies we had lore, and it was almost exclusively scary.

Podcaster Aaron Mencke produces Lore, stories based on fact and folk lore, with the finest use of music to evoke mood I’ve ever heard. As Mencke often points out, the scariest monsters are in reality, us, the other part of ourselves best kept in the dark.  

Perhaps, NetFlix, HBO, Hulu and others like them, are the campfires of our digital age, offering stories that we binge watch as entertainment. After all, as director Alfred Hitchcock reportedly said, “Drama is like life with all the dull bits cut out.”  

SHARING VIRTUAL REALITY

While we loved to be horrified by Joffrey Baratheon in Game of Thrones, celebrated the resourceful drunkenness of Tyrion Lannister, admired the courage of Daenerys Targaryen, or were uplifted by Jon Snow’s grim but steady moral compass, we were also learning. When we identify with others, even fictional characters, we experience reality from another perspective, a virtual point of view, and that’s a remarkably human thing.

Almost as remarkable, are the conversations we have about the stories we’ve heard. We talk about these fictions as though they are real. And that may be where Gottschall is on to something. No matter how sophisticated the production level or the user interface, a story is at the heart of every experience, and we propagate this virtual reality every time we share it with others.

Why Business Not as Usual Works for Inc. Magazine's Coolest Small Company

This post is based on an archived interview with Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw, founders of Zingerman's Delicatessen.

“I’m an anarchist and an introvert,” Ari Weinzweig.
"We have no business being in business," Paul Saginaw.

This is not what you’d expect to hear from the founders of several successful businesses. But that’s exactly how Ari and Paul described themselves during our interview. Except for the introvert part, I can relate to the underlying sense of not having any business being in business. But Ari and co-founder Paul Saginaw have created a successful community of food-related businesses (ZCoB) that completely upend the idea of business as usual.

It’s been several years but there are plenty of reasons why Inc. Magazine named Zingerman’s the coolest small company in America. After all, they’ve succeeded in building an empire without giving up what made it great in the first place.

My conversation with Ari and Paul, focused on the practical ways that they put creative thinking to work. While there is much to consider in their uncommon sense, here’s my take on the top three reasons why no-business-being-in-business is good business for them.

Pragmatic Visionaries

They started small but their vision was always big. Driven by their taste buds to bring the perfect corned beef sandwich to America’s mid-section (geographically speaking) they were practical about building a viable business that was also a vehicle for something more. Like an elasticized waistband (which you need when eating at Zingerman’s because it’s SO good), the deli expanded outward: becoming a bake house, a creamery, an online store, a management-training consultancy and more. The bottom line was an indicator not an end. They were practical and yet never lost touch with a greater sense of purpose.

Inclusive and Connected

Long before the clamor for transparency and authenticity in all things, Ari and Paul were living it. From the get-go they were as committed to their employees and the community as they were to their customers. So how do they do it?

They share financial goals and performance with employees. In fact, they have training sessions so that everyone from cooks to counter staff and coffee house baristas, can read a balance sheet and grasp what’s going on.

 They train their people. With a variety of three and five-step guidelines, Zingers (my word for Zingrman’s staff) live the goal of great customer experience. It’s a very smart use of structure as the source of freedom, allowing people to excel as their authentic selves within the Zingerman’s culture.

They provide a living wage. Ari and Paul may have started the deli because of a passion for corned beef. But from the start, their vision included creating a business that paid people a wage that would support a life: an education, a mortgage, an opportunity to advance. Their philosophy in action has strengthened and enriched the Ann Arbor community every bit as much as their many charitable programs.

Zingy! Really Truly Remarkable

Zingerman’s is a deli plus a community of other food-related businesses. But they’re also in the business of retail theatre. This applies to the online store too. The customer experience is a heady mix of yeasty, cheesy, meaty aromas with a congenial crush of people noshing, shopping, and learning about handcrafted, insanely delicious food. Their in-store graphics are great too: a little quirky, slyly funny and with just enough feeling of home made to keep it real. The online store extends the brand with the same graphic style and high quality content that will keep a foodie up long past bedtime.

When your name (Zingerman’s) becomes an adjective (Zingy) that describes the experience you deliver, you’re definitely doing something right. In fact, you can learn from Ari and Paul and their management consultancy team by signing up for a ZingTrain session. Don’t worry if you feel like you don’t have any business being in business. You may be destined for something great that simply isn't business as usual.

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Industrious, an Actor's Secret to Success

Several years ago, during a conversation with Guy Sanville, actor and artistic director at the Purple Rose Theatre, he repeatedly used the I-word. No, he didn’t say idiot, which I frequently mutter in reference to myself. Guy chose the word industrious to describe his work habits and those of people who are successful regardless of their profession.

 

You just don't hear the word industrious all that often, unless you're watching a wildlife show on the nature of beavers. Though there's nothing bad about it, industrious is not one of the top ten characteristics I'd like someone to use when describing me. Maybe that’s because I associate it with a faint-hearted kind of praise, like having a solid attendance record. (Although, Woody Allen allegedly said that 80 percent of success is just showing up.) Or maybe I simply equate industrious with an unvarying machine-like regimen.

Industrious as a Framework for Success

And yet, industrious is the word that Guy chose to describe his approach to the craft of acting. Which makes sense because the development of craft, the essential skills and techniques that are fundamental to all endeavors, does take work. A lot of work. But industrious doesn’t happen all willy-nilly. It demands a certain structure, a framework for accomplishment. Creating, whether it’s a character, a play or a new theory of the cosmos is work. But industrious, when applied to work you love, is not at all formalistic. It’s rigorous, not regimented. It’s structured but never static. It’s practiced repeatedly but is not mind-numbingly repetitious. 

Industrious and Creative

Industriousness and creativity are not mutually exclusive. They’re just different sides of the same coin. It’s that dynamic-tension-thing of apparent opposites coming together to produce work that lives rather than toiling away to work for a living.

Industrious people continually refine their craft. They are engaged in such a way that what works is something more than working. In our commitment to craft, we catch an occasional glimpse of art: the ephemeral and transcendent feeling of being completely connected to something greater than our singular selves. Whether you call it inspiration, art or transcendence, it is the pursuit of this elevated state that drives the industrious practice of a craft.

As Guy reminded me, acting is about doing. Industrious people get things done without a zombie-mind way of working. Hmm. Industrious is sounding better and better, a worthy New Year’s resolution to produce work that both lives and makes us a living.