Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson on Writing a Guide to the Unknown


Cover detail from We Have No Idea by Jorge Cham and Daniel Whiteson, courtesy of Penguin Random House.

PHD Comics illustrator Jorge Cham teamed up with particle physicist Daniel Whiteson to create a book of universal proportions: We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe. As the title suggests, this a book on the things we don’t know about the universe, the reasons why we don’t know, and the steps we’re taking to change that. It’s a delightful blend of illustration and information, and it shows just how much more we have to learn. Jorge and Daniel stopped by to talk a bit about their book, including some of the surprisingly complicated (and surprisingly un-complicated) facts of the universe. Read on!

Unbound Worlds: Not many books involve a collaboration between a physicist and a cartoonist.  How did your working relationship come to be?

Jorge Cham: A few years ago, Daniel contacted me and asked if I wanted to collaborate on a comic that explained the work that was being done at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva. At the time, I had published a few comics about my visit to the LHC, which caught Daniel’s attention, and I was interested in going deeper into the physics of it. So when I got Daniel’s e-mail I replied right away and we got the ball rolling.

Daniel Whiteson:  I always felt that particle physics needed some cool visuals to help explain it, because a lot of the concepts deal with such tiny or counter-intuitive objects that they border on the abstract.  It’s not like astronomy where you can point to the sky. So cartoons are a perfect complement to physics, because they capture how we think about things like particles in a way that’s nice to look at. Richard Feynman invented a kind of diagram to help physicists think about how particles interact, and it looks an awful lot like little cartoon doodles.  So working with Jorge is basically a natural follow-up to Feynman’s genius.


UW: The book explains many complex topics simply and creatively. What were some surprising things about the process of writing the book and how did it differ from creating videos & comics?

DW:  The videos were a lot easier for me!  When we started out working on the videos, we just planned to make a comic. Jorge came down to talk about the physics with me and recorded our conversation. Later he turned that recording into the script for a video. All I had to do was blather on for hours about Dark Matter, and he boiled it down to a few minutes of insight.  For the book, I wrote the first draft and so I had to think a lot more about how to frame the questions and build narrative momentum and tension. Then Jorge would take it and make it much better.

JC: Or ruin it! The jury is still out. ?

My biggest surprise was how much fun we had writing the book. It was a lot of work, but we had a great working relationship and we kept making each other laugh with jokes in the text or in the cartoons or in conversations discussing the chapters. Our hope was that if we had fun writing it, then people would find it fun to read.


UW: What is a scientific concept/thing people think is complicated and mysterious but is actually pretty simple?

DW: Dark Matter is something that people have heard of, and which sounds complicated and mysteries. But the little we know about it is actually pretty simple. We know it’s there, and we know how much of it there is. That’s about it!  It turns out that there is a lot of it (five times as much as there is of our kind of matter) and that it is all around us, in huge blobs that envelop each galaxy.

UW: What is a scientific concept/thing people think is pretty simple but is actually complicated and mysterious?

JC: One topic I had not thought a lot about before we wrote the book was the speed limit of the Universe. Why can’t anything move faster than light? Nobody knows! It seems deceptively simple to have a speed limit in the Universe, but it gets very complicated when you consider the ramifications of it. Having a speed limit actually throws into question the whole idea of time, causality, and any kind of consistent order of events in the Universe.

Pulled Over 1

UW: What do you think of the state of science education & funding under the current political climate?

DW: I think we need to remember that one of the most important features of science research is not just to answer immediate technological problems (like better batteries or new vaccines) but long-term blue-sky basic research.   It’s this wide-open exploration of our Universe that has the best chance of making mind-blowing discoveries that can completely up-end our understanding of our world, and has historically produced discoveries which improve our lives.

JC: Science may not have all the answers (and we should admit that), but it’s the best tool we have for knowing what’s true and what’s not. Also, it gives all those smart people something to do!