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The Dialogues - Clifford Johnson ***

The authors of science books are always trying to find new ways to get the message across to their audiences. In Dialogues, Clifford Johnson combines a very modern technique - the graphic novel or comic strip - with an approach that goes back to Ancient Greece - using a dialogue to add life to what might seem a dry message.

We have seen the comic strip approach trying to put across quite detailed science before in Mysteries of the Quantum Universe. As with that book, Dialogues manages to cover a fair amount of actual physics, but I still feel that the medium just wastes vast acres of page to say very little at all. This is brought home here because quite a lot of the sections of Dialogues start with several pages with no text on at all, just setting up the scenario.

As for using a discussion between two people to put a message across, Johnson makes the point that, for instance, Galileo's very readable masterpiece Two New Sciences is in the form of a dialogue (more accurately a discussion between three people, as a dialogue is only two way). This is true, though what we really mean is that it's very readable compared with other books of the period. It still feels quite stiff and stilted compared to a well-written modern popular science book. 

In the end, other people's conversations are often frustrating and boring - and the actual conversational language used is hardly natural. Try this randomly selected snippet:

Scientist: The key point is that there's one thing that makes that picture all hang together - you need something that all observers agree on.
Science fan: What's that?
Scientist: The speed of light. It is simply the conversion factor that allows on person's time and space to be mixed together and re-sliced into a different space and time for another person.

Not my idea of a fun conversation in a bar. Part of the problem here is, oddly enough, that the graphic novel format doesn't allow for good use of diagrams. The discussion of spacetime would have been helped a lot by some of these.

In all fairness, the content is very variable. For example when Johnson has a physicist dressed in a superhero costume (don't ask) explain Maxwell's equations to an interested bystander it's one of the best attempts to explain them I've ever seen. But it takes Johnson many, many frames, when it all could have been done in a couple of pages of a normal book with plenty of room for lots more interesting stuff. At other times, Johnson drops in a term like 'domain' in a way that isn't used in ordinary English.

One of the problems with the graphic novel format is you don't have much text, so you have to edit ruthlessly what's included. So, for example, when a science fan says 'Einstein discovered quantum mechanics? I thought he hated it?' The reply is 'No, no, he was one of the key shapers of it.' Though the answer is strictly true, there's a huge "but" to cover his increasing dislike of quantum mechanics and repeated attempts to show it was wrong.

In reality, what we get often aren't really dialogues, they're monologues with prompts (there are a couple of exceptions where we have equals talking, but most are physicist talking to semi-ignorant enthusiast). This means, for instance, that rather than debating the merits of string theory, loop quantum gravity etc. as you might expect in a classical dialogue, we just get a strong push on string theory.

I don't want to seem too hard on this book. It's a worthy effort, which is why I've given it three stars. And with his physicist characters, Johnson certainly gets one thing spot on, which is the way they often don't understand what they're being asked, something you frequently get when a layperson asks a physicist a question. The illustrations, all by Johnson himself, are very professional - and as I mentioned, there are occasions when he has a great take on explaining an aspect of physics. It's just, for me, both a graphic novel and dialogues get in the way of good communication, rather than helping.


Review by Brian Clegg


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