Science of the Unscientific with Jim Ottaviani

As a medium, comics has a lot of largely unused potential. One underdeveloped ability is the taking of things that may be fairly dry in prose form and using the illustrated form to make them exciting. Science would be one example, and Jim Ottaviani has created a cottage industry of comics about just that. His books have covered everything from the birth of the atomic bomb to the cutthroat world of dinosaur bone hunting in the 1800s.

Lately, Ottaviani has been writing about the "Science of the Unscientific," with two books coming out simultaneously: "Levitation," illustrated by Janine Johnston, is about the fight over the greatest magic trick in the world; and "The Wire Mother," illustrated by Dylan Meconis, a heartwarming tale of a monkey's love. Sort of. The pair of books will be out in July from Ottaviani's G.T. Labs, and CBR News managed to snatch Ottaviani away from writing just long enough to talk about them.

You're billing the two new books, "Levitation" and "Wire Mothers," as the "Science of the Unscientific." Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Sure. It's not complicated, really. I think we're all fascinated by the unexplained. Humans seem to have a need for mystery. We also have a need to try to explain those mysteries. I've found the stories behind those explanations, and the explainers, compelling.

Why two books at the same time?

That actually wasn't the plan. I finished the script for "Levitation" in 2005, before "Bone Sharps" came out. But Janine's schedule didn't permit her to get going on it until much later, so the timing was such that both books got completed simultaneously. Since I consider them the beginning of an ongoing series, it's nice to start off with a bang!

Why don't you tell us what "Levitation" is about?

I think the subtitle of the book says it well: physics and psychology in the service of deception. To expand on that, stage magic relies on a combination of science and story for its effect. The story of how the most famous levitation illusion was invented in England appeared in the U.S. thanks to a very crafty magician, and how it became a hit throughout the country has all the elements you want in a good story. Mystery, intrigue, a bit of bad behavior, and very human characters.

What is "The Levi?"

That's stage magician shorthand for the levitation illusion. There are actually a number of types of this trick, and the levi our book deals with is the Aga version. There's also an "as(h)ra" version, and others as well.

"Levitation" being about magic, was there any difficulty in doing the research, since magicians can be secretive, especially when they've been dead for seventy years?

This is an old trick, and its secrets were first revealed in print roughly 100 years ago. That said, those old books are hard to find! So I have to give special thanks to my friend Gene Alloway at Motte & Bailey Booksellers in Ann Arbor, Michigan for allowing me access to the Marcello Truzzi collection, and to the late Elaine Lund at the American Museum of Magic in Marshall, Michigan who opened the Museum and her library to me, a stranger, and made sure I got to see and read everything I wanted. Some of it proved to be a wild goose chase. Others, like the British publication "Black and White Budget," dated Feb 8, 1902, provided me with wonderful details on the original version of the trick called Entranced Fakir.

Had you any interest in magic prior to this, or did you just spot a good story?

I've been a fan, though not a rabid one, of stage magic for twenty years. I don't seek out many shows, though, and don't live in a place where lots of big stage shows appear. The only magicians I'll drop everything or travel to see are Penn & Teller. So I guess I like the romance of it as much as the actual practice. I certainly enjoy reading about it, and Jim Steinmeyer's books are my most recent favorites.

If Levitation is a story about the science of magic, Wire Mothers is a story about the science of...?

Love, plain and simple. Or not so plain, and not so simple, as it turns out.

There was a time, from the 1920s through the 1950s, where simply saying the word "love" in scientific circles got you dirty looks. It didn't appear in textbooks, didn't appear in scientific papers...nothing. Even worse, professional advice from psychologists on child-rearing ran along these lines: Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. The end result is a happy child. Free as air, because he has mastered the stupidly simple demands society makes upon him. It took an outsider scientist to challenge this. When Harry Harlow began his experiments on mother-love he was more than just outside the mainstream, though. He was an unhappy man who knew in his gut the truth about what love -- and its absence -- meant, and set about to prove it.

Has researching Harlow's experiments and conclusions changed the way you think about human relationships?

Not really, no. I believed love existed and was important before I'd ever heard of Harry Harlow. Harlow's search for why his life and relationships were the way they were got played out in his research. But he couldn't apply what he learned directly to his life, in part because it was too late, and in part because he just didn't have the mental and emotional tools he needed. So what I got from the story is having it reinforced that while you and I may not be scientists, we do have a set of tools and we can use to make changes in the world we live in.

Harlow's experiments seemed to reveal a biological need for love, but many of his later experiments on monkeys were, by most standards, very cruel and unloving, Is this contrast something you cover in the book?

Not explicitly. I think an alert reader will gather that Harlow might be heading down a dark path in future experiments, but we only give a couple of visual hints in the story. There are at least three reasons for that.

First, there's only so much space, so you have to choose your focus. Second, Harlow's story does have a natural beginning, middle, and end if you stick to this aspect of his research. Third, I think Harlow's story is overall a story of hope, not despair. So while it's a dark story, and the undercurrents aren't all positive, I chose to end it before things took a turn for the worse. I hope readers will learn more about him by checking some of the references we cite in the back of the book. There are other Harlow stories to tell, but they didn't fit in this book.

Both Harlow and the magicians featured in "Levitation" are big personalities. Was this part of the reason you linked them together?

That's a good observation, and I hadn't thought of that explicitly when I was doing this. I think you're right -- big personalities are almost always good sources for a story, and making sure the two books are present the same charismatic heft, so to speak, is a good thing. It wasn't intentional, or at least conscious, though!

How did you go about selecting the artists for the project and what made them right for each book?

The process I've used to select artists hasn't changed much over the years. I try not to even think about who I'd like to ask until I've completed the first draft of a script, since only then will I have a good enough idea of what the story should look like. Then it's a combination of opportunity and luck. I approach artists whose work I admire and see what happens. The good artists are often busy, but sometimes I get lucky.

That's certainly the case for both of these books. "Levitation's" story had a richly textured feel for me, and I saw painted art as my ideal. Having worked with Janine on "Fallout" I knew that she could deliver exactly the look I wanted -- and she was available. It took a little longer to get started than we had hoped, but the results are worth the wait.

As for "Wire Mothers" and Dylan Meconis, I first took note of her work in the first volume of "Flight," and then with her online stories Bite Me and Family Man (currently running on webcomicsnation.com ). Interestingly to me, she chose a very different style for "Wire Mothers" than she uses in her online work, but when I saw her first batch of pages I knew I'd lucked out again. She understood the story and was drawing it just the way I wanted it drawn, even though I didn't know that's how I wanted it drawn, if you know what I mean!

So how did you get so deeply interested in science?

I've been interested in science most of my life, really. I participated in science fair competitions when I was in grade school and got a couple of degrees in nuclear engineering as a college student. In between, and after, I've always enjoyed reading and learning about the people who made the discoveries that have shaped our world.

And comics?

Like many people, I read comic strips in the newspaper, and I still read 'em online, since we don't get a daily paper at home any more. I also read a few comics as a kid, but not many, really. It wasn't until college, and my younger brothers had a bunch of comics around the house when I would return during holidays, that I started reading them again. This was in the early 1980s, and it was a very good time to get into comics as an older reader. "Love and Rockets," Frank Miller's "Daredevil," Matt Wagner's "Mage," Baron and Rude's "Nexus," and then "Maus" and "Watchmen" and "American Flagg" and "The Dark Knight Returns." There were lots of great things to read!

I think you can probably guess where I'm heading with the next question: why comics about science?

Well, I think it's because I'm not really a scientist. People often portray me as such, because it's convenient shorthand, but a nuclear engineer is different from a nuclear physicist. It's subtle, but it's there, and it's the engineer in me that put the two things together, because it works. Comics are an effective means for communicating ideas. Look at any scientific paper. Sure, you'll see math, but you'll see words to frame the math, and you'll see pictures where words and math can't do the job. So comics about these people make sense at a really basic level. Also, I wanted to read comics like this myself, and since nobody else was doing them it looked like it was up to me.

Are you surprised with how popular the books have been?

Yes and no. Yes, because many people still react with surprise when they see that such a thing even exists. They'd never imagined it. But no. In the world of prose and movies, true stories are very popular. The Oscar nominees for Best Picture each year always includes a couple of stories based on fact. And I tell true stories. Sure, they're about scientists, but that's almost a by the way sort of thing.

What else do you have coming up?

I've had a busy year. I've written a full biography of Richard Feynman, one of the most dynamic figures in physics ever. I'm not sure when that's scheduled to come out. Probably next year. First Second will publish it, and I'm delighted to be working with them. I admire the tremendously high quality of the books they've done so far. Also underway, and also for First Second, I have a book on the three primate researchers that have done the longest studies on our close animal relatives: Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas. Their stories are quite exciting, and weaving them together has proved challenging. Finally, and also underway, is a book on the space race, focusing not on the astronauts, but on the people that didn't get to leave earth and go to the moon. Engineers and scientists, women pilots, the cosmonauts who came so close. All the people whose names you probably don't know. Again, tremendous fun.

Thanks for talking to us Jim!

"Levitiation" and "Wire Mothers" will be out in July in comic shops and books stores, but if you want to make sure you get a copy, we'll even provided the order codes. We're good like that here at Comic Book Resources.

 LEVITATION: Physics & Psychology in Service of Deception = May073508

 WIRE MOTHERS: Harry Harlow & the Science of Love = May073507

 BONE SHARPS + KNIGHT Combo = May073509

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