The University Record, December 10, 2001

Librarian’s comics animate lives of significant scientists

By Elizabeth Manasse
University Record Intern

Cartoon courtesy of Jim Ottaviani
Instead of using textbooks to tell stories about science, Jim Ottaviani, senior associate librarian at the Media Union, uses comics. In his spare time, Ottaviani, a former nuclear engineer, writes comic book scripts to teach and entertain. Ottaviani’s work was selected by the Nobel Prize Committee on Physics to be displayed in an exhibition celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize. He recently returned from Stockholm, where he spoke at the Nobel Museum.

Although all of his work addresses science topics, he is interested in presenting the life of noteworthy scientists rather than teaching science concepts. By presenting the life of scientists in comics, he aims to dispel commonly held stereotypes. For instance, he wants to dismiss the belief that scientists are crazy or live boring lives. “What I write is done to introduce people to science and scientist, and persuade them that science is interesting and the life of a scientist is one worthy of respect, admiration and something to aspire to,” he says. One of Ottaviani’s main goals is to emphasize the multidimensionality of scientists’ lives.

Ottaviani regards his work as historical fiction rather than direct representations of history. He omits small details and provides dialogue with the goal of making his work an effective mechanism for teaching and entertaining. After he performs the research necessary for his comics, he writes scripts, then assigns artists to visually represent the information. He works with many artists, such as Steve Lieber and Vince Locke.

His first book, Two-Fisted Science, highlights the lives of physicists, such as Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton. His second book, Dignifying Science, was dedicated to lives of women scientists, such as Marie Sklodovska Curie and Rosalind Franklin, the person who elucidated the helical structure of DNA.

“Women, as a group, have been ignored or actively excluded from comics in North America for a long time,” says Ottaviani. He recognizes that the subject matter of comics—the “superheroes” such as Superman, Batman and Spider-man—are less appealing to female comic readers.

His most recent book, Fallout, is about the lives of Leo Szilard and J. Robert Oppenheimer, and their involvement in the atomic bomb project during World War II . Fallout, which required more research and use of primary sources than his other books, will be in bookstores next week.

Although his work is not targeted to a specific age group, Ottaviani’s books have been used as educational tools for a number of classes in middle schools, high schools and colleges. “Not everyone learns well in lectures or labs,” says Ottaviani. “Comics give you the best of both worlds with visual and written information.” In successful comics, pictures or words by themselves do not tell the whole story; rather, they work to make the whole story more powerful than the sum of its parts.

In the process of getting his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nuclear engineering and then working as a researcher and consultant to the electric power industry, Ottaviani learned of many scientists. Outside of class and work, he enjoys reading biographies of scientists whose discoveries he had learned and used in school and his career. He also is an avid comic reader, a hobby he began in college. At the Media Union, he is responsible for building and maintaining the library’s engineering references, as well as assisting students with research inquiries. He writes comics in his spare time.