The Big Idea: Jim Ottaviani

How “big” does science need to be to be important science? Jim Ottaviani ponders this as he explains the story of Primates, his latest science-related graphic novel.


Big science. I’ve always been a big fan. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) The Large Hadron Collider, the Human Genome Project, the Very Large Array, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory, NASA in its glory days, and what the heck, even today’s not-quite-as-glorious NASA…all inspire me. Their scale and audacity exemplify humanity at its best.

But — and you knew there was one of those coming — there’s also something discouraging about big science. When you think back to Marie Curie and her husband Pierre in their tiny lab (a shed, really) on rue Lhomond in Paris or Michelson and Morley in a Cleveland basement, respectively figuring out that there’s radiation that we can’t see and never imagined existing, and that there’s no luminiferous aether to carry any kind of real or imagined radiation, you might also wish for a time when you could make a world-changing discovery by yourself, or with just a partner or two, alone in a small room. Simpler times.

Or not so simple. Because doing science was as hard long ago as it is today, since by its nature science doesn’t get easier the less you know. And you still need enough money to feed yourself while you peer into the hidden corners of the natural world…or just look at what everyone else had looked at before, but with a clever enough hypothesis, sharp enough wits, and the patience to follow both to an unexpected place.

The unexpected place Jane Goodall followed her wits to was Gombe, in Tanzania. Dian Fossey? Karisoke in Rwanda. Biruté Galdikas? Tanjung Puting Reserve in Borneo. And the reason I wanted to learn more about these three — and in my experience the best way to learn about something is to write a book about it — was because their work is the antithesis of big science. One person, a notebook, and (sometimes) a pair of binoculars. That’s all it takes to make big discoveries if you’re as smart and as patient and as tough as Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas.

As usual for me, the story is told in comics. (Or as a graphic novel, if you like. I don’t have a strong preference myself, though I appreciate the sentiment when people bend over backward to use the more dignified phrase.) Why comics? Big science again, or rather, it’s opposite. To make something with the visual impact of a movie or television, as, you know, an actual movie or TV show, I’d need actors and sets and money. Lots of money.

With comics all I need to make something with both the visual impact of those other media and the staying power of a book is a six foot tall stack of reference material, imagination, and something to write with. Oh, and a skilled artistic collaborator, which I have in Maris Wicks. Her art sings, and does so via the simplest of tools: pen, ink, paper. Okay, she colored the book digitally, but you get my meaning: We didn’t need any more room or resources than what you could fit in a basement, or even a shed, to tell a big story.

And discovering what makes us human? That’s the biggest story and the biggest science I can imagine.


Primates: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s 

Go to the book’s site (contains a pdf preview). Visit the author’s blog. Follow him on Twitter.

8 Comments on “The Big Idea: Jim Ottaviani”

  1. Super stoked to see Ottaviani as a Big Idea author! I’ve loved his works since I first picked up Suspended in Language, and luckily for me we’re from the same place which has meant that he’s always been on the local shelf at my comic store. Well, his works, not him. But it’s great to see an author I like blogged by another author I like!

  2. One person, a notebook, and (sometimes) a pair of binoculars. That’s all it takes to make big discoveries if you’re as smart and as patient and as tough as Goodall, Fossey, and Galdikas.

    (Jumping up and down, screaming) Yes! Yes! Yes!

    Someone who gets it. Science isn’t about big bucks and three-hundred syllable words; it is about discovering the world. And everyone can be a scientist! There are literally hundreds of citizen science programs out there, looking for eager and interested people to help them make the next big discovery. You can search for planets around other stars. You can name features on the Moon. You can look for new animals or track those we already know. You can even help cure cancer. All it takes is a little of your time and a lot of your curiosity.

    Come. Join us. Be a scientist!

  3. Science is Big Science today because it’s funded almost entirely by government grants, and grant administrators would rather administer one $10M grant than 10 $1M grants or 100 $100K grants.

    It’s a big problem. Scientific research naturally begins with little projects that grow into big projects, but funding doesn’t cover projects more than $1000 but less than $1,000,000. $10,000 projects could take risks and escape meddling from Congress. $10M projects can’t. So we fund almost nothing but expensive, safe, applied research projects, and very little basic research.

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