When physicists talk about their research, members of the public may wince at the prospect of being deluged with complex technical information.
Breaking from that tradition, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has published a full-color, 12-page comic book about its premier scientific research tool, the National Ignition Facility, or NIF.
Like other comic books, this one has panels of varying shapes and sizes, cartoon characters and speech bubbles that pose quick questions and give short answers.
Unlike most, however, this one looks at a technical topic, unafraid to address the public’s uncertainty and perhaps intimidation when confronting science.
“I didn’t understand anything you said,” comments a young visitor. “What exactly is a NIF?” he adds, not even knowing the acronym for the facility he is touring.
Eleven thousand copies have been printed to date.
The comic has become a much-appreciated addition to the more traditional repertoire of tours and technical briefings for people who come to learn about the giant laser, according to author and illustrator John Jett of the Laboratory’s Technical Information Department.
“This has definitely made the rounds,” Jett said. “Reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Visitors who pick up copies have ranged from school kids to service clubs to staff from government agencies and Congress, Jett said.
Beyond the personal response, Jett’s professional peers have also attested to the comic book’s quality. It won a Government Creativity Award from Adobe for best comic design,
Jett’s interest in comics started early. As a high school student in San Jose in the late 1990s, he drew and sold independent comics to what he now calls “fly-by-night” publishers.
He doesn’t remember producing “anything he would be super proud of,” but the effort brought experience and a chance to develop skills.
“It’s a great way to learn. You are creating your craft.
“Once you discover that there are other avenues to apply that skill set, like graphic design and technical illustration, it is a pretty seamless jump from there.”
That “jump” took him to a design job at a medical technology company, then to LLNL in late 2011. On arrival, he started imagining how a comic book might help portray technical projects including the giant laser.
His first supervisor encouraged his thinking, so a NIF comic book “was always… kind of percolating in the back of my head. It was just waiting for the perfect moment to come out.”
Including cover and back pages, the comic is 12 pages long. In easy-to-read speech bubbles, a young woman guide answers visitors’ questions about how lasers differ from flashlights, where lasers are used in the everyday world, and how the National Ignition Facility advances science.
Gee-whiz one-liners include the observation that when its beams hit a tiny target, “For a split second, NIF is the hottest place in the entire solar system!”
One panel has a child imaging sci-fi applications, like wielding a laser sword or laser blaster. "Pew! pew!" he says in imitation of firing a laser gun, while a more mature colleague apologizes for his television-stimulated imagination.
There are serious illustrations as well, all with non-technical language covering key features of the laser's operations. The back page offers highly simplified explanations of key concepts like ignition, as well as offering information about student internships.
Years ago, color publishing was anathema among government agencies and contractors like LLNL because of the appearance, if not the reality, of high cost.
Documents were typically black-and-white. Printers would win jobs after a public bidding process that often generated many more copies of the publication than were needed or used.
Today, publications like the comic book can be printed digitally in-house for the cost of materials, which means there is essentially no cost penalty for printing in color, Jett said.
In addition, the rise of print-on-demand technology has made it unnecessary to guess at how many copies will be needed. Ten or 20 or 100 more copies can be printed as soon as needed.
The comic book can be viewed online at https://lasers.llnl.gov/education