Editor’s Note: This interview was edited for clarity.
PhysicsCentral is an initiative spearheaded by the American Physical Society to bring physics to the younger generation. To help get kids interested in the subject, Rebecca Thompson, who earned a PhD in physics, created a comic book series featuring a superhero called Spectra. Thompson and others were at the San Diego Comic-Con to promote their series and offer free comics to convention attendees. The Tech spoke with Thompson about how she began her comic and some of her best moments with it.
TT: So the first thing I want to ask is, how did this all get started? How did you get into doing comics as sort of outreach education?
Thompson: So my PhD’s in physics, and while I was doing that, I realized what I wanted to do professionally was informal education. I wanted to get people interested in and excited about physics. I didn’t want to do classroom teaching — I wanted to have the freedom to do different stuff. I started working for the American Physical Society, and they have been wonderful in allowing my department to really explore different and unique ways to get people interested in physics. There was a summer where a whole lot of blockbuster comic book movies were coming out, and we decided to do a comic book about Tesla vs. Edison to mirror that, and it was extremely popular. In 2010, it was the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first working laser, so we created our own laser superhero Spectra. All of her powers are things that lasers actually do. The idea is to get people interested in the story through her life and her friends, and really hook them with the story, and then teach them the physics underneath that. So all of the characters, everything that you see, is actual physics concepts taught through a story about her life.
TT: What do you see as your main goal right now, with the comics? I guess it started as a desire to educate, but are there any more specific goals you’re working towards?
Thompson: Mainly we want to get them in as many hands as possible, and also to have people come back and ask us questions. We have an outreach website, physicscentral.com. We’re hoping people will read these [comics], and come back and learn vocabulary, and when they go on, that they’ll be more comfortable with the idea of physics when they take it in high school and college. The fact that our superhero is a girl was no accident. We really wanted to engage girls in physics, and girls in science in general. One thing we realize, as we see all these little girls walking through here, [is that] they’re like, “Wait, is this a superhero for me?” ‘Cause so many of the superheroes are men or boys, and this is for them, their age level. And really, going forward, we’re hoping to find new and interesting ways to get them into the hands of as many people as possible, and get as many people as possible interested in this. I know both my artist and I would like to figure out how to make them better and more engaging, and more exciting, and just keep upping it. One of the reasons we really like coming to Comic-Con is [that] we can meet people that do this professionally as well, and talk to them about the art of comic books. You know, we have the physics, and we’re learning about the comic books.
TT: You talked about when girls come by and say, “Oh, maybe this is a comic for me.” Are there any other moments like that, when you say, “This has been successful, and I’ve taught people something” or “I’ve done something good here”?
Thompson: What’s really wonderful is when parents come and they say, “OK, my kids just told me ALL about how lasers work and I didn’t know this,” or when adults will say something and their kids will correct them. Eight-year-olds talking about total internal reflection is just awesome. [They also] talk about potential wells, and laser cooling and trapping. We explain all those at a middle school level. But I think one of the highlights of this was when a mom called us, and said, “I didn’t even ask her to do this, but my daughter dressed up as Spectra for Halloween.” When all of this started, I said, “The day someone dresses up as Spectra for Halloween, I’m just gonna retire,” thinking it would never happen. So the day that happened was really special.