If all you know about Stephen Hawking is that he was on The Simpsons and other TV shows, then a new graphic novel coming next year will be the perfect way to improve what you know about one of history’s greatest theoretical physicists.
Over his career, Jim Ottaviani has written about great scientific minds like Jane Goodall, Niels Bohr, and Alan Turing. He also teamed up with artist Leland Myrick on a clever, lively graphic novel biography of iconic physicist Richard Feynman. Stephen Hawking himself reached to the pair to say how much he enjoyed Feynman and the meeting that followed kicked off a years-long collaboration on a illustrated biography.
io9 is happy to share an exclusive early look at the project, excerpted from a section called “Bedtime Story.” Ottaviani, who has a background as a nuclear engineer, graciously took some time to answer questions over e-mail about the project and what it’s been like trying to explain how a mind like Hawking’s worked. The still-untitled Stephen Hawking graphic novel will be published next year by First Second.
io9: What do you think are the biggest misconceptions most people have about Dr. Hawking?
Jim Ottaviani: Well, Hawking himself said that the most common misconception was that he was a character on The Simpsons, so I’m tempted to go with that. I mean, who am I to contradict him?
But from the outside looking in, I think maybe the bigger misconception is that he lived purely in his own head, and always did. Neither are true. Most of us only know him one way—mischievous smile, tricked out wheelchair, 8-bit audio voice delivering lofty pronouncements, etc.—but he was a physical person who got plenty of joy from the usual stuff that goes with being a human. (We found out through mutual friends he liked Marrons Glacés Candied Chestnuts, so I brought him some when we visited.) He just didn’t have as much control of [himself] as he’d like after about age 20.
Did you gain a better understanding of astrophysics or any of Hawking’s areas of study as a result of doing this book?
Ottaviani: I think so, but I have a confession to make: I think I got a better appreciation of his physics, and what led to it, from Kip Thorne’s book Black Holes & Time Warps than I did from A Brief History of Time. With that in mind, you’d be surprised by how readable a lot of Hawking’s own scientific papers are. In the bibliography at the back of our book I point out a bunch that will make you look and feel brainy when you read them on the subway or in the coffee shop. And I can’t think of a better way to break the ice with that attractive person sitting next to you than to ask them what they think of Hawking’s “Gravitational Radiation from Colliding Black Holes” paper in Physical Review Letters, and then offer to loan it to them on the off-chance they haven’t read it yet.
What parts of Hawking’s life were the most challenging to present? Is there anything you’re excited for readers to learn?
Ottaviani: Two parts were particularly tough. The life of the mind, since my mind isn’t anywhere near as good as Hawking’s, was hard. There are a lot of diagrams and equations to dig through. Most of those ended up being set dressing, so to speak, and I remain grateful that Leland didn’t kill me for asking him to draw so much complicated stuff in service of giving people a flavor of what was happening in Hawking’s head.
The other aspects that were difficult were the emotional scenes. When you’re visualizing things like sadness, anger, and jealousy on behalf of the reader, you can’t help but feel them as you do so. Again, thinking of Leland, I’m sure he had it even worse, since depicting these with the sensitivity he does means he was feeling them as well.
But all this leads to your second question, and yes, I’m excited for readers to get a chance to think a little bit like this great scientist thought, and maybe even feel a little bit like this amazing person felt as he discovered secrets hidden within black holes.