Jeremy Côté

Getting to the Essence

I’ve often thought about why I enjoy mathematics, physics, and then comics. The first two go together quite naturally. We aren’t surprised when someone who likes mathematics also has an interest in physics. The two are practically overlapping.

But comics?

Comics seem like a whole different story. They’re funny, artistic, and rarely have anything to do with mathematics or physics. It would be reasonable to think that comics are the odd one out. However, I want to argue here that comics share a lot in common with physics and mathematics. For simplicity here, I’ll consider mathematics and physics as one and the same.

In physics, our main job is to make models of the world that allow us to describe and predict the world around us. These models use mathematics to describe what we see (and what we don’t). We then run experiments to verify that our predictions are correct, and we pat ourselves on the back when we get the right result.

If you’re outside of physics, you might be under the impression that we can describe everything, to the smallest detail we want. While this might be true in principle, it’s not how we operate. Any first-year physics student learns this when they solve problems that neglect air friction, or that are conducted on frictionless planes. If anything, physics is often making its own job easier by idealizing the scenario. We’re stacking the deck in our favour.

The reason is simple: by idealizing our systems, we can make them tractable with mathematics. It turns out that, for most systems, making certain assumptions helps us with the analysis. We don’t do this because it’s correct. We do it because it’s simple.

This is important to understand, because it means that our models aren’t perfect. Whether such a model can exist is a philosophical question, but the reality is that our models in physics can only describe reality to an approximation. Sure, we can create more sophisticated models that take more into account, but they never become complete.

For students learning physics, a ton of simplifications are made. This is for two reasons. As I mentioned above, being able to actually solve the problem is an important feature we want while teaching students. The second reason is that using a simplified model can give students the essence of the problem. There may be a bunch of other complications, but when you get to the heart of the problem, what do you have to consider? For a pendulum, you can make all sorts of complicated scenarios, but the essence is a bob at the end of a rod. That’s it.

This is one of the great things about physics. We start with a system which is as simple as possible. This lets us understand the essence of the problem. Then, we can add back more features as we go and see what the consequences are. The guiding principle is always to figure out the core of a problem.

Now compare this to comics. Most comics don’t go on for pages and pages (I’m referring to self-contained comics). Often, they are only a few panels long, and contain less than a hundred words. Clearly, you can’t jam in a lot of content in terms of word count or art. When you only have that small space, what do you do?

Easy. You simplify.

Artists can’t explore every single nuanced detail of a topic in a comic. There’s just not that kind of space, and it’s not that kind of medium. Instead, the most difficult part of making a comic (at least, for me) is to get to the essence of what you’re trying to say. With limited space, you can’t cover every scenario or detail about the topic you’re creating a comic for. What you can do is find the essence, and display that.

Will this give the full story? Of course not! This isn’t a bad thing, it’s simply a consequence of making comics. When you only have three panels to work with, you need to simplify be economical in your work. You can’t afford to be sidetracked. This is very different from my work here on the blog. I don’t have any word limit, so I can go on and on about a particular topic. This is both good and bad. With comics, I have to focus a lot more.

This is how comics and physics are related. They both strive to capture the essence of a certain topic. Of course, physics might be a lot more detailed, but comics operate in the same spirit.

Therefore, I don’t think my interests are completely unrelated. Next time you see a comic, take a moment to observe how tight the writing has to be. You’ll rarely see an artist include more words than necessary. A comic done well is also unconcerned with a million different interpretations. It focuses on one main message, and sticks to it.

What I enjoy most about these subjects is their ability to focus on the essence of phenomena instead of trying to cover everything in one go.