The best graphic novels for young scientists and thinkers

The visual languages of comics and graphic novels are great exercise for developing brains.

young woman reading graphic novels on the floor
Photo by Joe Ciciarelli on Unsplash
  • In addition to being fun, studies have shown that the visual language of graphic novels stimulates the brain in ways that complex text can.
  • For some readers, information is easier to process through images than it is through text alone.
  • These graphic novels are great for getting young readers into philosophy, technology, and other scientific narratives.


    If you're not on the graphic novel train by now, you're missing out. In addition to being a pathway to reading for those who see big groups of text as daunting or inherently boring, studies have shown that the visual language of comics and graphic novels is good for the brain.

    In a 2019 paper titled "Visual narratives and the mind: Comprehension, cognition, and learning," assistant professor at Tilburg University and comics theorist Neil Cohn writes that because narrative sequential images are often used in things like children's books and storyboards, it has led to the "general belief that visual narratives are transparent to understand, requiring little learning beyond basic cognition like perceptual and event processing, sequential reasoning, and theory of mind." Cohn says that there is a growing field of psychological research that has shown that this is not true.

    Humans are 60,000 times faster at processing images than we are at processing text, and combining the two stimulates the brain in meaningful ways. In one study conducted at the University of Oklahoma, 80 percent of students in a senior level business course reported learning more from a graphic novel than from reading a textbook.

    "As we read, we practice multimodal literacy, drawing on our available resources and using them to shape meaning from the multimodal elements particular to a comics text, including the combination of words, images, spatial layout, gutters, sound effects, panel composition, body language, facial expression, emanata, and other comics elements," wrote Dale Jacobs, author of "Graphic Encounters: Comics And The Sponsorship Of Multimodal Literacy" and associate professor of English at the University of Windsor, Canada. "Reading comics, then, is an active process, and a theory of multimodality helps to explain how meaning is created by readers of comics and how readers reimagine themselves in relation to specific comics texts."

    On top of all of that, reading graphic novels is often just more fun! Well-written stories with beautiful illustrations can make any subject more compelling and palatable, especially for young, easily distracted readers. Here are some titles worth adding to your young reader's shelves if he/she is into STEM but not quite ready to thumb through textbooks and heady scientific journal articles.

    "Primates: The Fearless Science of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Biruté Galdikas" by Jim Ottaviani

    Illustrated by Maris Wicks, this graphic novel focuses on three primatologists whose important work revolutionized the field forever. Reviews praise the book for its accessibility and compelling storytelling.

    "Mysteries of the Quantum Universe" by Thibault Damour and Mathieu Burniat

    Co-written by theoretical physicist Thibault Damour and Mathieu Burniat, this French graphic novel follows an explorer named Bob and his dog Rick as they travel through the quantum universe. Along the way, they meet some of history's greatest minds, including Albert Einstein, Max Planck, and Louis de Broglie.

    "Hawking" by Jim Ottaviani

    Illustrated by Leland Myrick, this biography of Stephen Hawking's life is a great introduction for those unfamiliar with the legendary physicist, but it is also an interesting read for those who only know him through his quotes.

    "Hedy Lamarr and a Secret Communication System" by Trina Robbins

    Best known as a Hollywood actress and producer, Hedy Lamarr was also an accomplished inventor. This graphic novel tells how, during World War II, she developed a system that could be used by naval ships to send signals that could not be traced or blocked.

    "T-Minus: The Race to the Moon" by Jim Ottaviani

    Ottaviani is a name you'll see a lot when it comes to science-focused graphic novels. This novel in particular, illustrated by Zander and Kevin Cannon, is a fictionalized retelling of two nations doing everything they can to be first to the moon.

    "Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb" by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

    It's not easy to capture the importance and devastation of historical events with word bubbles and drawn images, but illustrator Jonathan Fetter-Vorm did it beautifully in his debut graphic novel, first published in 2013. In it, you meet scientists including Marie Curie and her husband Pierre, British physicist Ernest Rutherford, and German chemists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, and you learn the role they each played in what eventually became one of the most powerful weapons in the history of the world.

    "Logicomix: An epic search for truth" by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou 

    Chances are your young reader is not very familiar with the life and work of British philosopher and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell, but after picking up this book they will be. It's a more accessible way to introduce anyone to complicated ideas involving mathematical logic and analytical philosophy.

    "Neurocomic: A Comic About the Brain" by Dr. Hana Roš 

    With illustrations by Dr. Matteo Farinella and a story by Dr. Hana Roš (both neuroscientists), this graphic novel uses fantasy elements to teach young readers about what the brain is made of and what it can do. Neuron forests and giant sea creatures make for an engaging and educational read.

    "Heretics!: The Wondrous (and Dangerous) Beginnings of Modern Philosophy" by Steven and Ben Nadler

    We may respect their minds now, but throughout history there have been thinkers whose ideas were less than popular with the masses (or even other thinkers). From Galileo to Newton, this funny graphic novel covers some of their wildest theories, like Earth not being the center of the cosmos.

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    It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

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    For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

    The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

    The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

    One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

    Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

    Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

    Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

    A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

    We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

    —JENNIFER DOUDNA

    "This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

    "While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

    What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

    The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

    A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

    This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

    —FYODOR URNOV

    If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

    Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

    "This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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