The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe
by Clifford Johnson
MIT Press, 246 pages // Buy on Amazon
I never thought I’d say this, but here it goes: I’m definitely a fan of science comics. After Heretics! first introduced me to the concept, I was ready for another adventure — this time, in the realm of physics.
The book is essentially a series of conversations about science. Physicist Clifford Johnson takes the ancient, Socratic form of a dialogue and adapts it to the modern comic book environment. This medium is a metaphor in itself: Johnson believes we need to have more conversations about science, and, quite frankly, I agree.
While not as humorous and whimsical as Heretics!, I found that The Dialogues: Conversations About the Nature of the Universe does a fantastic job of explaining complex concepts in a way that’s not only easy to understand but also pleasant to follow. But what really sets it apart is the sheer quality of the writing. He effortlessly blends the natural, down-to-earth curiosity within us all with a patient knowledge that comes with decades of study.
Clifford Johnson is a highly respected physicist in his own right, his work mostly focusing on superstring theory and particle physics. But unlike others in his field, Johnson isn’t afraid to take a step down and talk “in English” — in a clear, simple language that anyone can understand.
Dr. Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, who wrote a blurb on the back of the book, rightly praised it as a very fun way of presenting physics. As Prescod-Weinstein, says, “This is simply the best introduction to electromagnetism — for any audience — that I’ve ever seen. I learned something from it, and I would consider putting this on a freshman physics syllabus.”
I had my doubts at first — the dialogues start out a bit dry, but they pick up quickly, and I soon found myself completely immersed in the book’s story. It begins with two people meeting at a costume party, discussing what a superhero scientist would be like — using his power not to fight crime, but rather to conduct better experiments. It then moves on to look at a brother and sister trying to understand why rice gets bigger when cooked and later continues on to deeper, existential topics.
But my favorite thing about this book is how it stays true to its name: it presents the nature of the universe, and it does so through dialogues. In a world that’s increasingly polarized, ignorance is often praised and despite all the technology available to us, we find it harder and harder to talk to each other. Perhaps having conversations is the best way to unite us once more. Perhaps it’s time to start having some real conversations about science, and this book is a great place to start.