Suspended in Language
Subtitled Niels Bohr’s Life, Discoveries, and the Century He Shaped, Suspended in Language is written by Jim Ottaviani and has art by Leland Purvis, with additional work by Jay Hosler, Roger Langridge, Steve Leialoha, Linda Medley, and Jeff Parker.
As Bohr was finishing college, physics was entering a revolutionary state. Einstein and Planck had introduced relativity and the idea that measurement couldn’t be exact. Building on their foundation, Bohr used his invention of quantum mechanics to improve the classical model of the atom. He became a leader in theoretical physics, with just about every Nobel Prize winner coming to his institute. Later in life, he moved into political work, helping intellectual refugees on the eve of World War II and using his celebrity to argue for arms control after development of the atomic bomb.
Leland Purvis’ distinctively thick line is well-suited for a biography, since it foregrounds the figures in a panel, drawing the reader’s eye to them. The visuals and text combine in such a way that it’s difficult to separate the two, unusual for a book with separate writer and artist. For example, early on, the political state of Bohr’s homeland of Denmark is explained through the visual metaphor of Hamlet followed by a towering Queen Victoria hiding childish figures of FDR, Churchill, and others under her skirts. (They were young then, not yet adults ready to take their place on the world stage.)
Throughout, there’s a playful tone, with noted physicists as characters who talk to the reader when needed. This approach suits Bohr’s character, as a writer who loved language and argument, and the theories he was essential in developing. Just as a physicist can’t observe an experiment without affecting it, one can’t read this book without being affected.
The idea that one can’t know everything was a radical revision that spread from science throughout culture, and the book’s reader similarly needs to acknowledge that they can’t understand everything. All these ideas are brought together in a sequence near the end that incorporates the reader into the space/time of Bohr’s life.