Many scientists embrace the artistic medium to infuse new ideas into their scientific works. With science-art collaborations, both artists and scientists challenge their ways of thinking as well as the process of artistic and scientific inquiry. Can art hold a mirror to science? Can it help frame and answer uncomfortable questions about science: its practice and its impact on society? Do artistic practices inform science? In short, does art aid evidence?
Nature India’s blog series ‘SciArt Scribbles’ will try to answer some of these questions through the works of some brilliant Indian scientists and artists working at this novel intersection that offers limitless possibilities. You can follow this online conversation with #SciArtscribbles.
Argha Manna, a cancer researcher-turned-science comics artist, tells us how he blended his passion for science, history and comics to carve a unique genre for himself.
Seven years ago, as a PhD student in cancer biology at Bose Institute in Kolkata, I was sitting at my desk reading a research paper. The paper was about how ‘cortical actin remodeling can influence spatio-temporal organization of cell surface receptors’. Although it was not directly related to my research, I wanted to read it as one of my friends was on the author list. While the paper featured a beautiful graphical abstract and excellent schematics, I was still having trouble understanding what it was about. The moment I started to think in visual sequences, however, the story opened up for me. Unknowingly, I had created a comic narrative in my mind on the cellular events, and the paper made sense.
Making science accessible through comics is not a new concept. According to Will Eisner, considered the father of the graphic novel, and eminent comics artist and scholar, Scott McCloud, comics is a sequential art form. The practice of using sequential art to explain scientific findings was common during the early days of modern science — Galileo made a series of sunspot drawings from his own observations. After the advent of time-lapse imaging and video-micrography, sequential art has been restricted to either the discussion section of academic journals or in science-themed comic books.
Visual metaphors to tell science stories
My first encounter with such books was Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe series. I was amazed by the use of visual metaphors. Later, I came across several books that used comics to communicate science such as Jay Hosler’s Optical Allusions, Neurocomic by Matteo Farinella and Hana Ros, and Mysteries of the Quantum Universe by Thibault Damour and Mathieu Burniat. I also found comics in academic journals like Science (General Relativity by Adrian Cho, Science, 2015). In all of these comics, metaphors were used to explain complicated scientific concepts in an accessible manner. Jorge Cham’s PhD comics and Randal Munroe’s xkcd are great examples of this.
Reading Nick Sousanis and Richard Monastersky’s The fragile framework (Nature, 2015) was a kind of ‘aha moment’ for me. I had found my calling – communicating science through comics. I dropped out of my PhD and joined a local newspaper in culturally-rich Kolkata, the West Bengal capital. In the first few months I created a series of articles for school children on the advent of modern science. I was fascinated by the history of science, so I started researching Robert Hooke and the early days of the Royal Society. A few months later I started to convert the articles into a comic form — and my first newspaper comic was born (Image 1). It has been appearing every week in ‘The Telegraph in School’ supplement.
I didn’t want to restrict myself to just explaining scientific concepts, to make science truly come alive I also included elements such as socio-political context, the people behind the science, technological development, social network of scientists and micro-histories.
Such an approach is essential in communicating the full flavour of the history of science, according to Harvard-based physicist and historian Peter Galison (Ten problems in History and Philosophy of Science, ISIS, 2008). History of science practitioners — as historians, scientists, librarians, cataloguists and archivists — collect these elements in the form of oral histories, newspaper clippings, artwork, diaries and memoirs, photographs and podcasts. A complete story can then be formed by adding these elements together — and may be more easily digested as a comic, rather than as a long form text.
As popular history of science stories tend to focus on Europe and North America, I created a free-to-access blog ‘Drawing History of Science‘ to tell stories about Indian science through illustration. At the beginning it was a lone venture. Then Sci-Illustrate, a Munich-based group, came forward as a collaborator in my journey. I found their goal – to revive the stories of women scientists from India – important. Together we have been retelling stories of Indian Women in Science (Image 2 and 3).
Later, ClubSciWri, the science communication platform of ‘PhD Career Support Group’ or STEMPeersTM approached me to create more comics about the history of science. In collaboration with them, I am telling stories from a global perspective, through comics and art (Image 5).
My future plan is to narrate natural history research in colonial India through comics and interactive art. Right now I am cataloguing the artwork (drawings, engravings etc) published in Asiatic Society journals and other media. I wish to redraw the old colonial artworks, to make them more interactive and then add the context and other elements in the form of sequential illustrations. It is still a lonely walk but I feel the future is bright.
[Argha Manna can be contacted at email@example.com.]