The best graphic novels for young scientists and thinkers

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

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.

    When you buy something through a link in this article Big Think earns a small affiliate commission. Thank you for supporting our team's work.

    Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

    Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
    Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
    • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
    • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
    • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
    Keep reading Show less

    Divers discover world's largest underwater cave system filled with Mayan mysteries

    Researchers in Mexico discover the longest underwater cave system in the world that's full of invaluable artifacts. 

    Divers of the GAM project. Credit: Herbert Meyrl.
    Technology & Innovation

    Keep reading Show less

    The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

    New research establishes an unexpected connection.

    Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

    Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
    Surprising Science
    • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
    • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
    • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

    We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

    A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

    The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

    An unexpected culprit

    The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

    What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

    "We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

    "Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

    fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

    Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

    The experiments

    The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

    You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

    For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

    Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

    The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

    However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

    The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

    As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

    The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

    The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

    "We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

    Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

    Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

    We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

    Bottles of antidepressant pills named (L-R) Wellbutrin, Paxil, Fluoxetine and Lexapro are shown March 23, 2004 photographed in Miami, Florida.

    Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
    Surprising Science
    • A new review found that withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants and antipsychotics can last for over a year.
    • Side effects from SSRIs, SNRIs, and antipsychotics last longer than benzodiazepines like Valium or Prozac.
    • The global antidepressant market is expected to reach $28.6 billion this year.
    Keep reading Show less
    Scroll down to load more…