18 May 2016

Drawn to Geoscience: Asteroid-like Comet Could Reveal Solar System’s Secrets

Posted by Shane Hanlon

This is the first in a series a posts from JoAnna Wendel where she’ll create (and explain her process for) comics of stories published in AGU’s news website and magazine Eos. The news story, Comet with Stunted Tail Hints at How Solar System Formed, can be found on Eos’s website.

When I think about making a science comic, my first thought is “okay, how do I make this science thing adorable?”

Just kidding—but that comes up sometimes. Connecting with an audience, whether it be through writing or visual art, is all about fostering an emotional response (and as we all know, adorable things do that pretty well). This is especially important when communicating science. Science can be boring. It’s all big words and mathy models and rocks so far away from Earth we only get a two-week window in which to view them as they hurtle by.

But science can also be exciting! Like the discovery of a tail-less, asteroid-like comet, the source material for the above comic. That comet is made of the same stuff our own EARTH is made of! And that’s SO COOL, right? And the mere existence of that comet will give scientists a jumping-off point from which to improve their models of solar system formation. That’s, like, the origins of our solar system, without which we wouldn’t even be alive.

So when I think of how I’m going to turn a science story into a cartoon, I think—how will I connect with this audience on emotional level? What part of their emotional brain do I want to titillate? And what’s the most important part of this story to highlight?

My own modus operandi is to make my audience smile or laugh or be generally giddy—so I made the comet in this story an adorable, hug-worthy character. It’s saying “hey!” to Earth as it swings by. It’s getting out of Jupiter’s way when Jupiter is being a bully. It’s serving as a hopeful beacon by which scientists can navigate their way down the path of knowledge (okay, that’s a little dramatic, but you get the point.)

As for highlighting the science, the questions I most wanted to answer were the classic what/how/why that makes for any good story:

  1. What is this thing? A comet that’s made of ancient Earth-like ingredients.
  2. If this chunk of rock was in the inner solar system once, how did it get out to the Oort cloud? Well, the researchers think that maybe Jupiter’s early migrations kicked it out.
  3. Why do we even care? THE ENTIRE FATE OF THE SOLAR SYSTEM DEPENDS ON THIS—no, but actually, we care because it’s a piece of our galactic history that scientists can use to better understand our own origins.

From there, I visualize what I want everything to look like, sketch out some thumbnails, write a script that succinctly captures my main points, and draw the comic in Photoshop. I hope you enjoyed reading!

-JoAnna Wendel is an AGU Eos Staff Writer