Friday, April 16, 2010

Superhero Scientists with Tentacles? Bring 'em on.

Great article and slide show up on the New York Times website from this past Monday about the considerable body of work comic art genius Jack Kirby left behind on the drawing board when he died in 1994. Dave Itzkoff's article, "Jack Kirby's Heroes in Waiting," details how the talented and prolific Kirby moved from New York to Los Angeles in the late 1970s, working first for Hanna-Barbera and then for Ruby-Spears, creating character designs for their Conan-lite Saturday morning serial, Thundarr the Barbarian.

Clicking through the slideshow, my attention was immediately caught by the slide for a presentation board for a show called the Gargoids, "scientists who gain superpowers after becoming infected with an alien virus."

It would be great if the producers now looking to bring some of these concepts to the big and small screens took the opportunity to learn something about the amazing superpowers of viruses themselves. Stop someone on the street and ask them what a virus is and you'll find that, despite decades of media noise about HIV and West Nile and H1N1, we don't really know. A project in the Omaha, Nebraska, public schools is empowering kids with the knowledge and journalism skills to create videos for use in classrooms to educate their peers about viruses--not just what they are and how they make us sick, but how viruses in all their amazing diversity are a vital part of life on Earth. It's an inspiring example of students learning to use storytelling to first make sense of science and then share their new expertise with others.

The World of Viruses project is spreading that message through other media as well--including Kirby's chosen medium. Bringing together comic book vets Martin Powell, Brent Schoonover, and Thomas Floyd, the World of Viruses project is creating graphic novels that bring viruses to life through traditional superhero graphics and story lines.

The science content is vetted by virologists through the Nebraska Virology Center and story lines and art alike go through several drafts to pass scientific muster.  The comics that result are bound together with nonfiction essays by award-winning science writer Carl Zimmer. The first three issues tell the stories of the human papiloma virus, influenza, and an ocean virus called EhV.

Printed and bound copies of the comics are being distributed to teachers and students through schools and libraries, but if you want your own copy you can download it for free through iTunes, as an iPhone app or in full-sized glory on the iPad.

Full disclosure: Elefolio provides some editing support for the World of Viruses project. (My paying clients are always listed on the front page of this blog.) I'm a huge fan of the graphic format, and especially interested in the possibility of the graphic novel form in furthering the public understanding of science, so it's been a special treat to be involved with the project in even a small way.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


I’m always happy to watch movies about dirigibles and robots, and never more so when the hero is a young inventor.

Not so long ago we watched Steamboy, Katsuhiro Otomo’s 2004 steampunk anime. I have a budding animator with a tinkering bent at home, and it was a pleasure to watch a movie with him that featured a young inventor hero, Ray Steam.  (There are also great pleasures to be had from the scenes of the young female aviation designer, Fio, in Hayao Miyazaki’s Porco Rosso.)

The tinkering bent brings with it a constellation of related interests. The science fair experiment in progress at our house involves an investigation into air pressure via a homemade potato cannon. We sampled the invention camp sponsored by the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and that was fine, but we’re migrating back to a camp with a more unstructured, self-directed Maker Faire ethic—Parts and Crafts, based in NYC and Boston. There is just a little whiff of void-the-warranty anarchy that we like.

So it was with glee that we caught the viral video by OK Go, in which a team of engineers crafted a huge Rube Goldberg machine timed to the verses of “This Too Shall Pass.” Wired has an article about the team that created the video and the video itself up on their site.  The OK Go video was fresh in my mind when I got a call from Shawn Jordan, Perdue grad and Rube Goldberg machine builder extraordinaire and veteran of the National Rube Goldberg Machine Building Contest. I’ll be talking about the Rube Goldberg contest itself more in a later post, but it was in reconnecting with Jordan that I learned about ST∑@M. STEM is used in K-12 education parlance to refer to a constellation of disciplines: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. ST∑@M is devoted to the idea that you gain more traction and bring more kids into the circle when you add the A (or @) for Art.
In a March 9 Commentary in Education Week, Joseph Piro of Long Island University wrote urging we not overlook the arts in the push to create a scientifically literate citizenry. He concluded

If American schools are to become a leading force in guaranteeing that the country is well prepared to negotiate the complexities of the future, they must be encouraged to make every student’s education one that is broad and comprehensive. And in meeting this goal, we might take a cue from Albert Einstein. While Einstein’s reputation undoubtedly rests on his scientific contributions, a lesser-known fact about him was his estimable musical ability. This great physicist, theoretician, and STEM-exemplar was known for revering Bach and Mozart, and to have once said: “I know that the most joy in my life has come to me from my violin.”

I will be thinking about the care and feeding of my own steamboy as I hear him practicing violin out in the kitchen, the sheet music secured to our fridge with a magnet.