Jim Ottaviani has carved a nice niche for himself in the niche-ridden comics industry. Working with talented artists such as Zander and Kevin Cannon, Anne Timmons and Bernie Mireault (among others), Ottaviani has been writing science-based comics for nearly ten years now. I’ve requested several that I’ve yet to read from the New York Public Library, and the first title to be fulfilled was Ottaviani’s biography of Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his role in the development of the atomic bomb. Titled Suspended in Language: Niels Bohr’s Life, Discoveries, and the Century He Shaped, the book is a detailed walk-through of Bohr’s atomic discoveries and a revealing look at the philosophies and politics that later drove the man when his research led to the deadliest weapon in the world.
Suspended in Language manages to be both more interesting and more impenetrable than other Ottaviani books I’ve read. Bohr’s research and theories could, I felt, be presented a little more clearly, reinforced more often and, perhaps, possibly, illustrated in more representational terms. Overall, as a non-scientist, I found the theories often too technical and abstract to comprehend. Ottaviani does, despite allowing my eyes to glaze over occasionally, try to reinforce several key elements that come back to play a role in the ongoing physics revolution of the time, particularly the theories that play key roles in the development of weapons during World War II. He wasn’t as successful as I’d have liked, but there was an effort made to accommodate readers who simply don’t grasp the full implications of the principle of complementarity.
Leland Purvis provides the illustrations, and he does a good job keeping all the scientists physically unique. Sure, Albert Einstein is a cartoonist’s dream, but Werner Heisenberg and Otto Frisch probably don’t inspire the same type of caricature. Fortunately, Purvis is up to the challenge. Purvis also switches the camera angle frequently, keeping the scientific debates lively and engaging, and he mixes in mathematical and chemical formulae throughout the pages to accentuate the discourse and provide visual variety. The lively, loose line work also gives plenty of life to the pages.
So, overall, it can be a little tedious at time if you’re not scientifically inclined, but Ottaviani’s telling an important story here. Beyond the scientific value of Niels Bohr’s discoveries and theories, his role in unlocking the atom and attempts at influencing the policies of FDR and Churchill throughout the 1940s and 50s makes Bohr one of the most influential men of the past hundred years. It’s very fortunate that readers can learn about these social and scientific break-throughs in engaging, smartly written and well-drawn books like Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis’s Suspended in Language, which you can hopefully find in your local library.