Challenges and Adaptations

Sorry for the hiatus in posting this week. I’ve been busy trying to find a way to keep the planet-of-the-apes collaboration from splitting up. As it now stands, Tony Auth and I are going to be working for rival news organizations starting April 2. He’s been invited to release his abundant creativity on WHYY’s website Newsworks, and I have no doubt the result will be spectacular.

For the last few days I’ve written dozens of memos and proposals, suggesting every possible configuration of staff writing and freelancing that would keep the illustrated column together.

For those not from Philadelphia, Tony is a multi-talented Pulitzer Prize winning political cartoonist. Creating the illustrations for this column was something he wanted to do because he has a longstanding interest in science, especially cosmology and physics.  

Some of my topics were so abstract I thought encapsulating them in a drawing was going to be impossible. How do you illustrate the difference between science and religion? Or why we have evidence for only one origin of life? Or arguments over what caused the beginning of the universe?

Adding to the challenge was the fact that Tony didn’t get to work with the columns you see, since those are rarely finished much before the Friday deadline. Instead, he’d get whatever half-baked version of the column I’d managed to toss together by Wednesday night. By Thursday morning he never failed to surprise me by drawing something that perfectly encapsulated what was most interesting about the column, even as the column was still being written.   

We keep a bulletin board in the newsroom with a collection of the illustrations pinned to it. Above is my clumsy attempt to photograph it. There should be a nice way to collect them online.  I’m optimistic our collaboration will find a way to continue at some point, since both WHYY and the Inquirer share  common goals of finding truth and serving the community.

In an effort to boost our odds of future collaboration, team Planet-of-the-Apes will attempt to win a contest called the flame challenge. This science popularization competition was initiated by science-boosting actor Alan Alda. Best known as Hawkeye on Mash, Alda portrayed physicist Richard Feynman in the play QED.

Alda’s challenge is to explain the nature of a flame to 11-year-olds. Real kids will judge the contest, with adults judging for accuracy. I hope the grown-up judges will also look for substance. After all, the easiest way to prevent factual errors is to write stories devoid of facts, but I don’t think this should be the goal. A fact-free story would probably also be less likely to bore 11-year-olds. But it’s his contest, not mine, and all we can do is write and draw to the best of our abilities.