How I wrote a graphic biography of physics Nobel laureate Maria Goeppert-Mayer

Post by Cliò Agrapidis
Published in Physics
How I wrote a graphic biography of physics Nobel laureate Maria Goeppert-Mayer

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Being a female PhD student in theoretical condensed matter physics, I am part of a growing number of women in STEM. Being part of this group has made me aware of several initiatives related to it: from groups forming to reunite women scientist and/or to inform the public about women in STEM (500 women scientistsWomen in research), to specific funding programs for women (like the one from the L’Oreal Foundation). Major journals (including Nature) publish editorials and data on the current situation for women in science and I find myself reading and sharing them almost daily. Being part of this group makes me feel invested in talking about this and other academia-related issues, acknowledging them among my peers and my colleagues and whoever is patient enough to listen to me.

This is how I found myself at the Lucca Comics&Games, the largest comics fair in Europe, talking about mental health in academia to a cartoonist, while other cartoonists and publishers were at our same table. Having finished with that, a young member of the BeccoGiallo publishing house asked me about the women in science issue, if it is something in which I am interested. After my affirmative response and some more small talk, he explained to me that he and a younger collaborator were launching a new comics website, with the intention of publishing short graphic journalism stories about current events but also, more in general, as a platform for informing the public about broader modern issues. They asked me whether I would write biographies of women scientists, with the intention of ‘going beyond Marie Curie’. I accepted and so I started collaborating with STORMI, an Italian online magazine dedicated to graphic journalism.

The next step I took was to write down a list of important female scientists from the past that not everyone knows. The first confirmation that many of these women are not widely known came when I showed the list to my partner, who is also a physicist: he did not know more than half of the people on the list. I sent the list to the two editors of STORMI with a short subject for the biography of Maria Goeppert-Mayer and a first suggestion for the order in which I would work on the list. As I expected, they did not know the names of the dozen scientists I had written down, but this is the core of the project: showing people how women have been part of science, not in big numbers as men (mostly because of regulations that did not allow women to do science), and how we, the public, have forgotten them: it is time we remember.

Comic as a medium has the advantage of using pictures. You can say a lot without too many words. For example, in Maria Goeppert-Mayer’s biography, one of my favourite illustrations is the one depicting Maria’s movements around the U.S.A. Sure, one can make a list, but it will not immediately show the distances she actually covered.

An illustrations depicting Maria’s movements around the U.S.A. from 1931 to1960

Another idea, which came from the illustrator I collaborated with, the talented Eliana Albertini, is to use different colors for different life periods. Again, one can divide the text in paragraphs, or chapters, but it does not have the same visual effect.

There was another problem that was very clear to me: the website is in Italian, but the language of science is English. So, I translated my own text into English and even asked my partner to make a German translation. That way, the comic is now available as pdf in three languages, and can reach a much broader audience.

Three panels showing hte same illustration but with the text written in German (top left), English (top right), and Italian (Bottom)

I started with writing about a woman physicist because physics is my field and because when we ask people to name any female scientist they will most probably say Marie Curie and stop there. But there was another woman who got the Nobel Prize in Physics, and now we finally have a third one (which made our comic obsolete, but made us very happy). I will not restrain myself to physics: I have already written the text for Emmy Noether’s biography, my never-tired editor Mattia Ferri has contacted an illustrator, and we hope this story will be available soon. But there are other scientific fields to cover: biology and informatics, for example. I am now focusing on prominent female scientists of the past, but my hope is to be able to write stories about living scientists, maybe a graphic interview, in order to show to the public, but also to some fellow scientists, that science is not a men’s affair: women have been there, they are there, and they will be.

Post by Cliò Agrapidis — read the graphic novel here.

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