AsianScientist (July 24, 2017) – Cartoonists view the world through a different lens, and they have an amazing ability to capture complexity in simple pictures. Amidst bold strokes and fine lines, comedy and commentary take shape, and the artwork evolves into a riveting story that resonates with a wide audience.
Scientists ought to take a leaf out of the cartoonists’ book. After all, science is complicated and research is an odyssey into the unknown—perfect material for a comic strip! This is exactly what Dr. Jorge Cham has created with PHD Comics and his book entitled We Have No Idea. By deftly combining science and art, Jorge has developed a personal brand of science communications that has garnered him throngs of fans the world over.
Jorge was recently in Singapore to give a science communications masterclass at the Singapore Management University on July 8, 2017. Ardent fans of PHD Comics got up close and personal with Jorge to ask about their favorite characters and pick his mind about his leap of faith to become a full-time comic artist.
Here are six questions that fans asked Jorge during the meet-and-greet session and the masterclass Q&A.
How did you make the decision to switch from being an academic to being a full-time comic artist?
Jorge Cham: It was the hardest easiest decision I’ve made. Clearly, I knew that I enjoyed doing this stuff; I knew there was an audience for it and I’d been doing it for a long time as a hobby. Besides, there was already some revenue coming in through it.
So it should have been an easy decision, but it was very hard to make because for ten years it was my goal to be a professor. I told all my family and friends I was studying to be a professor, so it was difficult to suddenly say “I gave that up to be a cartoonist!”. What were people going to think of me? Would they see cartooning as less prestigious? Had I failed in academia?
Then there was a possibility that I would be an artist and fail. I might find myself 60 years old someday and working at McDonald’s just to make a living. That sounded crazy and I thought, “I can’t do that!” And then one day—it literally happened like this—I just woke up and I thought, “I don’t care!”
Are most of your comic characters inspired from real people in your life?
JC: Yes and no. People write to me a lot and their comments fall into four categories: First, “I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.” Second, “Thank you for helping me procrastinate. I have done no work this week because I was surfing your website.” That makes me feel good! Or people say, “I’m in love with one character, Cecilia or Tejal.” That is disturbing because she’s a cartoon character, right? And besides, she’s my imaginary girlfriend. Back off!
Your comics make grad school sound challenging. Should a high school student aspire to grad school?
JC: I would say that you’re not the first person to tell me “I was thinking about grad school, and then I read your comic and had second thoughts.” However, equally many times, people tell me “I wasn’t sure about grad school” or “I didn’t think it was for me, but then I read your comics and they made it seem human and fun and challenging in a do-able way.” So I think my karma’s still neutral!
But I definitely encourage you to go to graduate school. I am of the general opinion that everyone should get a PhD. Nothing would get done, but at least we would have an intellectual and critical thinking society.
How do you manage your time and has anyone harshly criticized your comics?
JC: Things worked out because I procrastinated doing research by making the comics, and I had a deadline for the comics so I procrastinated making the comics by doing research. So if you can find yourself in that cycle, you can be very productive. I’m actually serious about that!
Do I get harsh criticism? No, not in the sense that I discourage people from going to graduate school. First of all, most people who read the comic are already in graduate school, so it’s too late for them!
What happens to me a lot is that I’ll write a comic thinking, “Wow, this is kind of negative and I can’t believe a professor would say this, but it’s really funny.” Then I’ll publish it and I get feedback from people saying “Oh my god, my professor said the exact same thing!” So I think the comics have done well because people see a lot of truth in them, and the truth can only help you. Also, if you’re making major life decisions based on reading a comic strip, I can’t take responsibility for that!
How do your comics change people’s minds about science?
JC: That’s a great question! I always say, think about it as a bell curve. Most people who are going to see my work are part of a certain core group of people who already love science.
I was just having this conversation with someone about communicating climate change and it’s one of those things where there’s no single message that will reach everyone who is a climate change denier. Some percentage of the population responds to the emotional appeal of climate change, some others respond to the logical side of things, and then there are others who respond to the human or personal side of things.
Your book touches on many difficult concepts. What are some tips to make difficult concepts easier to understand?
JC: That’s a really great question! Well, my co-author Daniel [Whiteson] is very self-aware of jargon. A lot people will say “We have these things called quarks,” but Daniel puts it in a very matter-of-fact way: “Quarks is just a name we give to things.” I think this helps the reader realize it’s not about the name; it’s about the idea behind it. He’s a little dismissive about these names—one particle is called the charm quark, and that’s a stupid name, but that’s just the name somebody gave it. So I think noticing jargon and making it less intimidating is a really helpful way to approach difficult concepts.
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