Atomic Size Matters

Way, way back, Veronica Berns and I went to high school together. Not for very long, mind you, since she was a senior when I was a freshman. Veronica has since gone on to do a lot of cool stuff, including getting a PhD in chemistry, turning her dissertation into a comic book in the process. That comic, Atomic Size Matters, is funding on kickstarter right now. She and I recently spoke about chemistry, comics, and grad school. 

Josh Kopin: Before we get talking about your comic "Atomic Size Matters" itself, can you explain your graduate work and your dissertation project? 

Veronica Berns: I'm a solid state chemist, and I did graduate work on the crystal structures of metals, that is, the way that atoms arrange themselves in solid compounds. The Fredrickson Group (the research group I did graduate work in) focuses on the complexity in intermetallics. It may be surprising, but we still don't have a good idea of why certain compounds form one arrangement over another. And we certainly don't have a good way to predict when a structure will be really simple or really complicated.

My project specifically dealt with the influence of atomic size on the resulting crystal structure. Intuitively, the size of one atom should impact the arrangements that it can make, but it turns out that is a really hard thing to test. So I did a lot of calculations to draw conclusions about the connection between size and structure. The project is ongoing, as other students have taken over, but my portion of the work culminated in a connection between a very simple compound called CaCu5, and an icsoahedral quasicrystal, a material that contradicts our definition of "crystal"; they have 5-fold rotational symmetry, but no translational symmetry. Quasicrystals are seemingly impossible materials, but they actually do exist! And their discoverer recently won a Nobel Prize in 2011.

JK: Writing a dissertation is a long and complicated process; why did you decide to do the extra work of turning your dissertation into a comic? 

VB: You're right, writing a dissertation is really hard!

About a year before I intended to graduate, I thought about how long and complicated the dissertation writing process would be. And I thought about how much I loved my graduate work--I often stayed late at work not because I had a deadline (though I had plenty of those too!), but because I was lost in the joy of what I was doing and I would forget that I needed to sleep. Ultimately, I was excited about the prospect of creating a thesis, a document that would make all of my efforts tangible, but I was sad that my family wouldn't understand it. My field is really specialized, and the academic language we use is very efficient and necessary for talking to other experts, but those same academic words are admittedly impenetrable to most people who haven't studied chemistry since high school.
It started off as a fun thing to do for the benefit of a few people, and I ended up with a fairly long comic book. Yes, it was hard to do in addition to the work of writing a thesis, but it was ultimately worth it.

JK: Can you describe the differences between the two versions of your dissertation?

VB: There are a few differences. The dissertation covers more ground. There was just no way I could cover everything in a comic book. I chose the chapter with the broadest appeal to turn into a comic.
The dissertation goes into a lot of mathy detail about the programs that my colleagues (Kale Engelkemier and Yiming Guo) coded. I used those programs to run calculations, and then I drew conclusions about the results. Though the comic explains the gist of the calculations, it focuses more on the conclusions.

The dissertation also includes a few things completely left out of the comic. Though I did a lot of theoretical calculations, I also did experimental work: I mixed metals together to make the compounds we were thinking about. A few new compounds came out of those efforts, but nothing that connected to our work on icosahedral quasicrystals.

I should also point out that the comic book is actually the last chapter in the thesis itself. So soon the University of Wisconsin's esteemed library will include a silly drawing of me as a runway model.

JK: What did your committee think of the comic book, and how did they feel about it being included in your finished product? 

VB: One of my committee members, when I handed him the thick, paper dissertation, immediately started thumbing through it. Suddenly he saw a flash of color, and had a very confused look on his face. So I explained the whole thing, and he giggled excitedly! He told me later how read that part with his school-age kids, and he was very impressed that they could follow what I was saying.
I didn't plan to mention the comic at my defense, but they brought it up first! Our department has open defenses, and my committee wanted me to show a few pages to my classmates who hadn't seen it before. They encouraged me to do something with it, and approved of the idea to self-publish on Kickstarter. I think one or two of them has even bought a copy!

JK: What, if anything, were the particular difficulties in the creation of Atomic Size Matters? Are those difficulties different to those you encounter trying to explain you work conversationally, or are they more or less the same? 

VB: Ironically, it is difficult to remember the difficulties I had in making the comic. I know I struggled with simplifying certain concepts, but ultimately it was something I was doing for fun and at those times I would take a break, and return to the work later. What got me through the hard parts was thinking about a metaphor that my dad or mom would understand. Like I would revise the comic by asking myself, "What question would dad have after he read that?"

I think the difficult concepts are always difficult, no matter the medium. I see the comic as a practical substitute for having a face-to-face conversation with someone.

JK: Some comics makers, including Art Spiegelman, have described comics as essentially diagrammatic. What's the relationship between your work and more traditional chemical diagrams? 

VB: I tried to incorporate as many traditional chemistry visualizations as possible. It was important to me for someone who reads the comic to be able to pick up one of my academic papers and look through the figures and say "Hmm, this looks familiar. Maybe reading this isn't going to be as difficult as it seems." I get very jazzed up about demystifying and making hard science less intimidating to people who don't think about that stuff daily.

A few examples of this are the diagrams of crystal structures, the Chemical Pressure plots, and the "Energy-distance diagram" that appears pretty early in the book. We draw these a lot, especially in chemistry classrooms, to talk about distances in a molecule.

JK: What parts of the book were particularly fun or challenging to make?

VB: There are a lot of Easter eggs in the book. Because I made it for my family and friends, I tried to put in a lot of stuff that would just make them laugh. I don't know how much I want to give away, but there's a spaceship from one of my favorite videogames and a famous internet cat that were really fun to draw. There's also a picture of me as Ron Burgundy, which was really fun too.

It was hardest to draw the Chemical Pressure diagrams. They obviously come from a computer program, but I was really set on making those in the style of the comic book. Oh man! Getting those the proper scale and shape was really rough! I scaled everything as accurately as possible, but every drop of ink you see is a drawing, not a computer generated image.

JK: Do you have any particular influences, even outside of comics in more traditional science writing?

VB: In my Kickstarter video I mention that I loved Magic School Bus and Bill Nye the Science Guy as a kid. Obviously, those materials are geared towards a younger audience, but the spirit of them is something I would like to carry forward. Even if someone is a fan of dinosaurs or space travel or whatever as a kid, I think at some point most adults stop talking about science in an excited way. In high school or college, many people decide that they're never taking a science class again because they don't like it, or it is too hard. But that shouldn't stop the ideas from being exciting! There's so much out there that people are just learning right now, and it is all just as cool as T-rexes and triceratops. Figuring out how to present it is often a problem.

There's one episode of Radiolab called Tell Me a Story, where Robert Krulwich basically lays out an argument for talking about science in a graduation speech. I listened and relistened to that piece quite a few times when I was making the comic.

So anyway, I would say that I really respect that essence. I think Bill Nye has done some awesome work recently, especially with Neil deGrasse Tyson on Star Talk Radio and Cosmos. Though I read a lot of comic books and graphic novels, most of the influences on my art come from Sunday comics strips like Peanuts and Pearls Before Swine. A thick black line, bold color, and handwritten text.

JK: Do you think that the fact that comics are words and pictures working together in a particularly close way makes it a particularly useful medium for science writing?

VB: Yes! Whenever I'm talking about science--to either an expert or a novice--I rely heavily on pictures. I think most scientists do. It's natural to want to support your assertions with evidence, and that evidence is often a graph or an image. If you think about it, a really good power point presentation is basically a panel-by-panel view of a comic book: a few sentences that refer to an image on a slide is just like a panel with a caption.

I think comic books are a great way to explain a lot of things, beyond science. I'm just most able to talk about chemistry.

JK: Would you be willing to share what it is you're working on now that you're done with your PhD. program? Are you hoping to turn further research into comics as well, or to help other interested scientists do the same? 

VB: I am a research scientist for a company called Honeywell. I can't really talk much about the materials that I make, but my day focuses on making things that have never been made before, and finding the most efficient way to make them.

I'm going to continue making comics, but my work now is confidential, so I'll be tackling other topics.

I would love it if more people made their work into comics. Even if it isn't a comic. Maybe someone is really good at music or creative writing or claymation, who knows! Forcing myself to think differently about my work had huge benefits--both in the lab and out-- and I think more people should try it out. And if they need help in any way, I'm available!


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