Seven Forgotten and Misunderstood Journeys of Scientific Discovery

Science is supposedly all about cool logic and extreme objectivity; experiments are tainted by nothing personal, and all the drama is contained in petriglasses and test tubes. But behind the scenes of the stereotypical white coats and microscopes lie much messier ongoings: welcome to a world sexism, politics, academic feuds, and exploited students. It might sound like the laboratory edition of Eastenders or the university version of The Bold and the Beautiful, but all this is real life, as dished out in Darryl Cunningham’s Graphic Science.

Cunningham takes seven underrepresented, misunderstood, forgotten or otherwise neglected scientists who did not become the Einsteins of our science narrative and puts them under the microscope of the graphic novel.

There is Mary Anning, a girl and woman who struggles in poverty to provide for her family by hunting for fossils on the beach cliffs of Lyme Regis. With time, she becomes as knowleadgable about her finds as the scientists she deals with – yet all the credit goes to rich, male scientists rather than the working-class woman who found and analazyed the evidence. There is Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a postgraduate student who through her painstaking observations was the first to discover radio pulsars. Yet, the Nobel Prize went to her supervisor Anthony Hewish, Bell Burnell resigning to the less acknowledged fate of a research student.

And there is George Washington Carver, born a slave, but climbing through the ranks of science to become one of the most imporant botanists of time. The Annings and Carvers of scientific history are all transformed into graphic tales under Cunningham’s distinctive, minimalist pen, delivering a visual journey through science, history, social issues, professional feuds, and personal lives.

To get a humanist like myself to read through anything to do with hard science is a feat: in this case, a feat that Cunningham achieves in unique, deliberately rough-around-the-edges, hard-hitting style. The novel’s scenes are set both historically and scientifically so that even if the reader spent their GCSE Physics classes doodling away at everything else apart from atoms, they can still  follow – and enjoy – the stories.

the relevance of the findings to the big picture comes across

The selection of scientists is an intriguing one in itself as well: that individuals of a certain sex (women), social class (not rich), or colour (not white) were, and are, excluded from scientific, and other, positions throughout history is no news, but Cunningham goes well beyond that in bringing to light more hidden disputes in the world of science. Fred Hoyle, the English astronomer, for example, discovered how most of the elements on the periodic table came about to exist, but was overlooked by the Nobel Prize committee because of some of the controversial views he held relating to other aspects of science. Antoine Lavoisier, in turn, established himself as the founder of French chemistry but unfortunately his immense wealth did not tally well with the ideas of the French Revolution and he lost his life.

That said, at times even the science slacker in me felt as if the science was simplified a bit too far in the narrative. Graphic novels as a genre offers a handy tool of explicating to even the dumbest audience what is going on in scientific terms – there is nothing like a cartoon to get across a theory. Now terms like ’radio pulsars’ are thrown in and then largely brushed over; the relevance of the findings to the big picture comes across, but does not leave the reader feeling exactly enlightened.

The same sense of not-quite-fully-met-potential goes for the artwork. Cunningham’s style is distinctive in its simplicity with strong lines and geometrically-faced characters, focusing on the text rather than complexity of the illustrations, but incorporating different perspectives and using the page layout in a less box-like manner could have brought stories to life on a different level – tapping into the full power of the graphic novel and making a picture really say more than a thousand words.

True, Graphic Science could have done more, but that is asking for an A* from a solid A piece of work. Science is about the systematic, the constrained, and the predicted; Cunningham laces that with the injustices, quirks, and personal whims that determine who become our Einsteins – and delivers an insight into science your standard physics textbook never would.

Graphic Science is published by Myriad.

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