Librarian captures scientists’ lives through graphic novels

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The stars of Jim Ottaviani’s graphic novels aren’t superheroes like Batman or Spider-Man.

Instead, they have names like Goodall, Hawking and Curie. And while they don’t wear capes or leap tall buildings, they still have superpowers: important contributions to the field of science.

Ottaviani, a U-M librarian, has been writing graphic novels for more than two decades. He has 14 titles under his belt, with his next book featuring Albert Einstein set to come out late next year.

Ottaviani’s writing career grew out of two hobbies that started in childhood: reading comic books and studying science. He was intrigued by the scientists he learned about in school. As an adult, he decided to dive a little deeper and began reading their biographies.

Jim Ottaviani, a U-M librarian, has been writing graphic novels about scientists for more than two decades. (Photo by Kat Hagedorn)
Jim Ottaviani, a U-M librarian, has been writing graphic novels about scientists for more than two decades. (Photo by Kat Hagedorn)

“It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but many of these folks led interesting lives. What does sometimes surprise people is that stories about scientists make for great comics,” he said.

Ottaviani’s first graphic novel, a collection of stories about physicists, came out in 1998.

His latest work, “Naturalist,” is an adaption of naturalist Edward O. Wilson’s memoir of the same title. Vivid illustrations and some of Wilson’s own words help bring to life the naturalist’s lifelong quest to explore and protect the natural world.

Another graphic novel, “Dignifying Science,” tells stories about Marie Curie and several other well-known women scientists.

Ottaviani’s books have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and a few of them have even been on The New York Times best seller list. They are available for purchase at bookstores, on Amazon and through Ottaviani’s website, gt-labs.com.

Ottaviani said when he’s deciding who to write about next, he gravitates toward scientists who were pioneers in their fields. He enjoys the research part of the process so much that it can be difficult to stop.

“One of the hardest things to do, and I have to relearn this lesson every time, is step back and say ‘You have a deadline coming up. You really have to start writing now,’” he said. 

Ottaviani’s educational and professional background is in science. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in nuclear engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Master of Science degree in nuclear engineering from U-M.

In the 1980s, Ottaviani worked retrofitting and making repairs at nuclear power plants. He really enjoyed the research aspect of that job, and he went on to earn a Master of Science degree in information and library studies from U-M. He joined U-M’s faculty in 1992.

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Ottaviani said one of his favorite parts about creating graphic novels is collaborating with the various artists who illustrate his work. He said when artists send him the panels they’ve created to go with his text, he feels like he’s rediscovering his stories through another person’s eyes.

“It’s delightful. It’s like a birthday present every time,” he said.

As he thinks about possible topics for future graphic novels, Ottaviani recently started doing research on women who have made important contributions in the field of oceanography.

“I enjoy action and adventure stories — and sure, superheroes too — as much or more as the next person,” he said. “But I think real people are just as good or better for stories. And I love science.”

Q&A

What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

I’ll go with my first thought, which was an experience I had as a liaison librarian for Mechanical Engineering. Before you could find much on the web, I was working with an undergraduate design class whose challenge was to improve pizza delivery. One aspect of that is, of course, to make sure your dinner arrives hot, so I dug deep into our reference collection to help the students find various parameters for crust, tomato sauce and cheese along with the insulating properties of container materials. We all learned a lot, since there are no handbooks that list the heat capacity in joules per kelvin for New York-style crust, much less mozzarella, so we had to estimate many values and justify those assumptions. It was fun to help them come up with reasonable values for everything, and see the solutions they came up with after we had some plausible numbers to work with.

What can’t you live without?

Leaving aside the obvious stuff like food, family and friends, I wouldn’t want to live without books. Cliché, right? But getting lost in a novel or in-depth exploration of a topic I’m interested in is one of the great pleasures of life. I know a lot of people couldn’t concentrate on long-form works during the first months of the pandemic, but books were one of the few things I could attend to and enjoy.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

It’s a tie between the Wave Field and the Arb.

What inspires you?

The amazing things people do, and the beauty, at every scale we choose to look, of the world we live in.

What are you currently reading?

I’m one of those people that has a bunch going at once. “Mine!: How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives” by Michael Heller and James Salzman; “How Stella Learned to Talk: The Groundbreaking Story of the World’s First Talking Dog” by Christina Hunger; “The Anthropocene Reviewed” by John Green; “The Slough House” series by Mick Herron; and a bunch of comics, of course, plus prose books I’m reading as research for my next graphic novel.

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

That’s impossible to answer, since there are so many branches to my career that I’m not sure I can claim anything resembling a path. So I guess it’s back to family and friends, who’ve supported and encouraged me along the way to wherever it is I’m going.

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