Aspen Center for Physics: graphic novel about thermodynamics
‘Max the Demon vs. Entropy of Doom’
Assa Auerbach and Richard Codor
135 pages, hardcover, $34.95; paperback $24.95
A great number of scientific papers and publications come out of the Aspen Center for Physics, but none quite like Assa Auerbach’s latest.
The Israeli physicist’s new graphic novel, “Max the Demon vs. Entropy of Doom” — created with illustrator Richard Codor — aims to explain the basics of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics through a kid-friendly intergalactic superhero story.
Aimed at kids and young adults age 10 and older, the book offers some key lessons in an entertaining package about our hero, Max, coming from outer space to save Earth. The project was inspired by Auerbach’s presentations at the local Kids Science Barbecues, which ran on Wednesdays in previous summers at the Physics Center over the past decade.
“It has several levels of understanding,” Auerbach said of the long-form comic. “You can read the story and get the picture or you can really read it and learn some notions of energy conservation and statistics.”
Like most physicists, Auerbach rolls his eyes at the way most superheroes always break the laws of physics in order to do good.
“Superman, these other superheroes, they always break the laws of physics in public — they break serious laws,” he said during a recent interview on the physics center’s West End campus. “Max is not allowed to break any laws in public and he is only allowed to become small and open and shut doors.”
Max is based on Maxwell’s Demon, the theoretical being imagined by James Clark Maxwell, which would violate the second law of thermodymics by opening a small door between rooms and allow only the fastest molecules to pass through, creating energy and thereby breaking the rules of entropy. Max, in the book, has the power to do just this but is forbidden from doing it in public.
He comes to Earth on a mission to save it from global warming and environmental calamity, but first he has to learn how the laws of physics work. For his crash course, he travels through time to meet giants in the field of theromodynamics. Max goes to 19th-century Europe to meet Benjamin Thompson, who runs an amusement park to demonstrate basic rules of physics, and goes into the kitchen to cook with Leonard Sadi Carbnot for lessons on heat and the second law of thermodynamics, with a clarifying pit stop with Ludwig Boltzann. Later in the book, he goes on a road trip with Richard Feynman.
In the end, Max saves the world and takes a trip to Las Vegas for some fun and games and lessons on statistics.
Auerbach — a professor of physics at Technion, Israel — is a regular participant in the Aspen Center for Physics summer programs and a former board member at the nonprofit. This summer he’s here doing work on condensed matter.
In the 1990s, Auerbach wrote a widely used textbook called “Interacting Electrons and Quantum Magnetism.” Aimed at graduate students, it was a straightforward academic work, except that it included three illustrations by Richard Codor. A former political cartoonist for the New York Observer, contributor to television cartoon shows like “Doug” and creator of the kids’ Passover cartoon “Joyous Haggadah,” Codor brought his visual charm to the academic illustrations.
The cartoons, a bemused Auerbach recalled, left an impression on students.
“Years later, people came up to me and said they really loved it, but mostly they enjoyed the cartoons,” he said. “I told Richard this and he said, ‘Let’s do a real project! Think of a topic in physics.’”
So Auerbach immediately thought about the outreach talks and workshops he’d done on the second law of thermodynamics with children here in Aspen. He’s spent much of his career trying to help lay people understand this law, which is a challenging course of study even for physics students (“Most students hate it and engineers hate it a lot”). He believes the general public’s misunderstandings of entropy underly some people’s confusion over global warming and energy shortages.
His first stab at the cartoon collaboration was writing a straight-forward and explanatory book, which he thought Codor might spice up with illustrations. But the illustrator set him straight: “This is boring,” Codor told him. “People don’t read to learn. They read to be entertained. Let’s make it a superhero story.”
So the pair sought advice from friends who work in comics and popular entertainment and got some pointers on how to make it a fun story, though Auerbach insisted all of the science in the book be sound and correct.
“It’s a conflicting thing,” Auerbach said. “But it worked out. The book itself has been well-received by the physics community. These are people who care a lot about definitions being correct. They don’t cut corners.”
Released late last year, the graphic novel is on sale at maxthedemon.com and Amazon.
The Center for Physics isn’t running kids’ barbecue lessons this summer, but its free weekly series of physics talks continues every Thursday though the end of August. The next event, on Aug. 16, features Princeton University theoretical physicist Juan Martin Mladacena’s presentation “Black Holes, Hawking Radiation and the Structure of Spacetime.”