“Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in extolling the magic of real human conversation. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” Such unsurpassed amplification of understanding is why dialogue has reigned as monarch of thought-transformation at least since the days of Plato. It is not coincidental that Galileo reconfigured our understanding of the universe in a revolutionary treatise he titled Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, nor that it was in dialogue James Baldwin and Margaret Mead reached insight into the question of race tenfold deeper and more nuanced than anything today’s ping-pong of opinions produces.
That mighty conduit of understanding is what English theoretical physicist and Scientific Controversies alumnus Clifford Johnson employs in The Dialogues: Conversations about the Nature of the Universe (public library) — a most unusual visual eavesdropping on a cast of intelligent, relatable characters discussing some of the most fascinating frontiers of science.
Strikingly, Johnson illustrated the book himself — one of the world’s preeminent scientific minds, specializing in particle physics and superstring theory, he took a semester off teaching to teach himself to draw. I hesitate to call the result a “graphic novel,” a term unfit for a work of nonfiction — perhaps “cosmic comic” would be more accurate, though this seems to somehow diminish the depth and richness of the subjects Johnson explores, among which are black holes, relativity, string theory, quantum electrodynamics, the question of whether the universe is infinite or finite, or whether it is even a universe or a multiverse.
Much of the dialogue ventures boldly into the borderland of science and philosophy, that seductive lacuna between truth and meaning. A man on a train asks his travel companion whether mathematics is invented or discovered. “I’m down on the side that says we can think of all kinds of crazy things inspired by nature,” she answers, “but it doesn’t mean that those…
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