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Physicists are a new kind of superhero in comic book on fusion energy

A new comic book produced by PPPL entitled “A Star for Us” tells the story of the quest for fusion energy and PPPL’s role in that quest through dramatic and eye-catching images.

The glossy comic book, featuring graphics by comic book artist Frank Espinosa and text by Sajan Saini, a Princeton professor of writing, was distributed to PPPL staff last week. It will be handed out to tour groups, Science on Saturday lecture goers, students visiting the Laboratory and public events of all kinds. The comic book is also available in a downloadable version on PPPL’s website.

“I thought this was a terrific opportunity to really capture in evocative visuals a leading-edge national research program for this country,” said Saini, who holds a doctorate in materials science and engineering from MIT.

The 12-page comic book delves into fusion energy’s history and the technical challenges of “building a star” to generate electricity. It touches on the role of the National Spherical Torus Experiment (NSTX) and the more powerful and recently completed National Spherical Torus Experiment-Upgrade (NSTX-U) in achieving this goal.

The illustrations are meant to provide a window into the subject that conveys the emotion behind the quest for fusion energy, rather than a literal depiction of the technology. “I’m not a very realistic painter,” said Espinosa, a former art director at Warner Bros. Studio. “I’m more of an impressionist.”

The comic evokes the quest to harness star power, Saini said. “The mood of the comic tries to really capture a sense of a vast cosmic scale being made palpable, being made into something that we can realize within our own hands,” he said.

The project was the brainchild of Kitta MacPherson, PPPL’s former director of communications, who had seen Saini and Espinosa’s work in the EQuad News, a periodical published by the Princeton School of Engineering and Applied Science in the summer 2014 edition. The challenge was to make the quest accessible to a general audience, Saini said. “Frank and I wanted to explore new territory where we took the lessons of superheroes and the science fiction genres to create a feeling of awe and excitement,” he said.

The two visited PPPL last winter and interviewed scientists, including PPPL Director Stewart Prager, former Deputy Director for Operations Adam Cohen, NSTX-U Program Director Masa Ono, and head of Science Education Andrew Zwicker. Saini said the conversations led him to think about the challenges of creating a plasma that is dense enough and hot enough for long enough to produce fusion energy.

“We didn’t want to just make a star-struck depiction of this technology that offers promises of what would come tomorrow,” Saini said. “That was part of the story, but we really wanted to spend the core of the story talking about what is happening today.”

Espinosa, a professed science buff, was struck by the researchers’ enthusiasm about the future of fusion energy. “I was trying to channel that energy of hope,” Espinosa said. “I always try to figure out how we can get a really hopeful feeling out of this because it’s a visionary thing.”

Espinosa came up with sketches for the comic book early on while Saini wrote the text. They consulted with MacPherson and Zwicker on early versions of the comic book. Later on in the process, Science Editor John Greenwald helped Saini revise the text and decided some of the final details, such as the size of the comic and the paper to be used.

Graphic designer Kyle Palmer consulted on the visuals for the comic and helped put together the pages, including the typography for the inside covers, which Greenwald wrote. Palmer said the final product is a great tool to teach a generation that grew up on comic books, as he did, about fusion energy. “It takes the impact from the text and from the visuals, which is really unique,” he said.

PPPL owns the artwork in the comic book. A blown-up version of the dreamy, futuristic cover image will be featured outside the NSTX-U Control Room overlook area.

Espinosa and Saini, both of whom live in New York, have been friends since 2006 when Saini audited a class that Espinosa taught on graphic design at MIT, where Saini was a postdoctoral associate after having graduated two years earlier. The two discovered that they shared a love for comic books but didn’t work together until they collaborated on the comic in the EQuad News last year.

Saini had taught physics at Queens College, CUNY, for four years, before deciding to pursue his interest in science education and writing. For the past four years he has taught in the Princeton Writing Program, where he conducts a seminar on “Superhero Trials” in which much of the reading list is comics. Saini was first introduced to PPPL while working with Zwicker on a science video program Saini co-founded called “Science Action,” in which some students filmed videos about fusion energy at PPPL.

Espinosa is a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in New York. After working at Disney studios as an intern, he spent 13 years at Warner Brothers Studios, where he became the art director of character design and redesigned the complete lineup of Looney Tunes characters. Espinosa has since focused on creating comic books, including a series called “Rocketo: Journey to the Hidden Sea” for Image Comics. He has also created a biographic comic on the life of Italian shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo.

Espinosa said he is very happy with the comic book that he and Saini have produced for PPPL.  “I’m very proud of it because for us it’s just the beginning of a way of communicating,” he said. “I think it’s really important for people to look at science as art. The two subjects can combine very beautifully.” 

U.S. Department of Energy
Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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