There are lights that illuminate what the eye cannot see. The light of which we speak, in this case, it is not that of a light bulb or a LED, but the electromagnetic radiation emitted by electrons accelerated in “advanced light sources”, high-tech tools used to investigate microstructures and nanostructures in matter. CNR has involved Zerocalcare to use a comic to tell the story of the advanced light sources in Italy, in Trieste: the Elettra synchrotron and FERMI free electron laser.
Scientific method is based on repeated experiments, and using comics to talk about science is not an isolated experiment; since in 2013, CNR has used the Comics&Science series for this enjoyable way if providing information. In Educazione Subatomica, Zerocalcare shows that he is aware of his role: in addition to telling about his full immersion day at the synchotron in the company of some of the scientists at the CNR Istituto di Struttura della Materia, he describes the (desperate) attempt to convey his love for discovery and knowledge to Blanka, the boy he is helping with his homework.
Cartoons from Educazione Subatomica (courtesy of Cnr Edizioni)
There are lights that illuminate what the eye cannot see.
Comics&Science has more or less the same goal: to arouse the reader's interest in scientific topics rather than give specialist lectures, involving authors such as Leo Ortolani, Silver, Tuono Pettinato and Licia Troisi. To dig deeper in such an interesting editorial project, we spoke to Roberto Natalini, mathematician and director of the Istituto per le Applicazioni del Calcolo of the Italian CNR, who conceived and directs Comics&Science together with Andrea Plazzi.
How did the idea of Comics&Science come about?
For many years I have been interested in providing information, I try to convey to people the idea that science is useful, and that the information that they have can determine if it moves in the right direction. But I have always found language difficult. It is very hard to talk about science in a simple manner; some very good books do it, but only a few read them, and it’s very difficult make a film or appear on TV to speak of these topics. A few years ago, with Andrea Plazzi, who has a background as a mathematician but is also an expert in comics, we thought that a comic could be a means of talking about such things.
How difficult was it to find a balance between the accuracy of the scientific content and the ability to reach a wide audience through the stories?
A good messenger for our message is one that manages to create a strong artistic and narrative situation that involves the reader, and that can in a certain sense “trick” them. The comic is beautiful, funny, made by a famous author, but in the end, the reader receives new content, in which they weren't even interested at first. We are not providing information in the conventional sense, but scientific entertainment. We want to attract and intrigue the reader, who will then be able to take the cues that we provide and explore the topics.
Do you have to work hard on the comics to ensure that the scientific information is correct?
There is quality control. We supervise the whole process, but we leave the author enough freedom to create. When we receive the storyboard or first drafts, we often have to suggest scientific details, or involve a scientist who can do so. Usually, no major changes are needed after this step because the author has been pointed in the right direction.
Cartoon from Educazione Subatomica (courtesy of Cnr Edizioni)
In recent years, mistrust of science has become a very sensitive issue. Can scientific entertainment be part of the solution?
Science has always aroused mistrust. I think that on average we are more educated than previous generations, the uneducated have more voice than in the past, maybe because of social media. We hope that our approach can help. The last issue of Comics&Science, which contains a story by Silver with Lupo Alberto, covers fake scientific news. A little humour at the expense of the many movements like the flat earth society or the anti-vaccinationists doesn't hurt. Rather than taking them too seriously, it's better to blow raspberries at them.
How was your experience with Zerocalcare?
I have spent quite a lot of time with him, we also made three train trips together in a few days, and I must say that he's an incredible guy. I believe that he’s very good at hiding the fact that he's an intellectual, a person that knows a lot, and I find that he’s much more culturally refined than he lets on. He insists on this mask of a Roman that only speaks the dialect of Rebibbia, but I think he has a remarkably subtle way of observing the things in life. Moreover, despite his enormous success, he tries be honest and close to the values with which he started his adventure.
Zerocalcare. Photo by ActuaLitté used under licence cc-by-sa-2.0
Zerocalcare found a “formula”, a style with which he seems to be able to tackle any issue, however complex, from the Kurdish resistance to advanced light sources. Is he motivated by this wide range of topics, or is there a limit beyond which he feels that he cannot go? Have you ever talked about it?
His approach is the same as that on which the American gonzo journalism movement is based. Thinking of the great American journalists, David Foster Wallace for example, but also may others have written reports in which the narrator exhibits their own subjective filter; Truman Capote comes to mind, or more recently, Emmanuel Carrère. Putting the narrator at the centre of the story, even when it's real, is very effective because it gives the reader a good, non-artificial and properly stated viewpoint, providing reference points that the reader can identify with. For example, in Educazione Subatomica, at a certain point it's clear that Zerocalcare would like to talk about something close to his heart in this very high-level scientific experience: the contradiction between the fact that society should provide more support to people doing this difficult job, and the fact that all around he hears talk of temporary work, difficulty in reaching the end of the month and, well, sees people that are not as valued as they should be. So, he manages to talk about it using a typically immersive narrative device: he tells of listening to these very interesting arguments, but is distracted when he starts to eat lubjanska, “the Godzilla of cordon bleus”; the comic shows a galaxy of comments about the economic and work-related problems faced by researchers. It could have become a heavy didactic scene, but in this way it provokes the reader's curiosity.