Physicist Clifford V. Johnson believes that experts and science nerds have monopolised scientific conversation for too long. His new book The Dialogues is an attempt to redress the balance and encourage us to make conversations about science a part of our everyday life, in much the same way as we regularly discuss movies, books, sports and politics. The Dialogues is a series of nine conversations about science told in graphic novel format; the conversationalists are men, women, children, and amateur science buffs who all have something to say about the nature of the universe. Their discussions range from multiverse and string theory to immortality, black holes, and how it’s possible to put just a cup of rice in the pan but end up with a ton more after Mom cooks it. Johnson (who also illustrated the book) believes the graphic form is especially suited for physics because “one drawing can show what it would take many words to explain” and it’s hard to argue with his noble intentions, but despite some undoubtedly thoughtful content The Dialogues doesn’t really work. Why not? Because, even with its plethora of brightly-coloured pictures, it’s still 200+ pages of talking heads. The individual conversations might give us plenty to think about, but the absence of any genuine action (or even a sense of humour) still makes The Dialogues read like very pretty homework.
For The Dialogues to really engage the layman reader, it’s going to take a lot more imagination than just watching two people have an ongoing conversation about the beauty of equations before grabbing a cup of coffee and discussing the size of space (be still my beating heart!) And when two characters meet in a café and find mutual attraction in The Theory of Everything, we can only be glad that they weren’t the kind of people we met when we were single because they might have brains the size of planets but they’re also stultifyingly dull company. In fact, it’s the first chapter that gives us the biggest warning about what lies ahead: a couple meet at a museum superhero party and then instantly wonder why superheroes waste their powers rescuing us from bad guys when they could be using their special skills to dream up even greater scientific advancements… it’s an interesting question, but it’s not exactly thrilling. Maybe if the couple really had been superheroes debating how science could help them defeat their latest supervillain it would have been a tad more engaging…
The Dialogues is an admirable attempt to repackage big scientific ideas, but it misses out on the most vital ingredient: a sense of playfulness. Without that element of fun, it’s a bit of a well-meaning slog, unfortunately.
THE DIALOGUES: CONVERSATIONS ABOUT THE NATURE OF THE UNIVERSE / AUTHOR: CLIFFORD V. JOHNSON / PUBLISHER: MIT PRESS / RELEASE DATE: JANUARY 19TH