Optical Allusions, by Jay Hosler.
The stereotypical scientist is focused: Intensely focused. Imagine an aging white man with wild, graying hair, and wide eyes behind thick, dark-rimmed glasses. He is so focused that nothing matters but science. A social life? Superfluous. Hobbies? Unnecessary. Fashion? “My neon pocket protector fits squarely in my lab coat”. Stereotypes often have some basis in reality, but they over-simplify, ignoring the complexities of life. True, scientists are usually focused and driven. But they are also people; usually well-rounded, intelligent people. My scientist-colleagues are musicians, athletes, artists, and naturalists. They travel, play video games, and care for children. Yet (probably owing at least in part to my own unconscious predilection to stereotype) I am often surprised and awed when I find examples of scientists who excel in an arena decidedly different from scientific pursuits. Surprise and awe was exactly my reaction when Optical Allusions by Jay Hosler showed up in my mailbox because the book displays not only Hosler’s talent for teaching science, but also for producing art.
My favorite thing about Optical Allusions is its originality. New things often come from the combination of established entities or traditions. Examples of this abound in eye evolution, a common topic on this blog. Even inventors have fused existing things into something new, such as the lottery ticket-scratcher that is a combination of coin and key chain (another hat tip for that example to Ryan Gregory). Even the word blog is provides a etymological version of fusion. The combination of comic book and educational scientific text, which Hosler has also used in two previous books, is the fantastically novel idea explored in Optical Allusions to convey information about evolution, eyes, and vision in the context of a fun and creative comic story. Having a comic story that introduces science concepts is a great advantage for visual learners (like me). Hosler has used his comic illustrations to great effect, producing several highly memorable images that convey scientific concepts.
Combining comics and science is not the only original feature. The comic story itself is wildly inventive. The story follows the main character, Wrinkles the Wonder Brain, who is a brain without a person – no stranger than all the people walking around without a brain, as Wrinkles points out. Oh, and by the way, that is not his bottom. It is his cerebellum, thank you very much. In Chapter 1, Wrinkles quickly encounters trouble when he accidentally drops a magic eye into a vat of distilled human imagination. Armed with a bagful of newt eyes that allow him to go where and when he wants, Wrinkles plunges (ploops) into the vat to try to retrieve the lost magic eye. This is no easy task. Human imagination is vast, as Hosler demonstrates with this book.
In Chapter 2, Wrinkles meets Charles Darwin on an island, sitting behind a stand that Charles obviously acquired from Lucy van Pelt of Peanuts fame (“the doctor is IN”).
Charles Darwin and Wrinkles the Wonderbrain play a friendly game of "Dominant Predator" to illustrate how natural selection can gradually produce something even as complex as an eye. Image copyright Jay Hosler. It may not be copied without permission, except for a review. (I assume this means a book review, like I'm doing here, so I haven't asked for permission).
In Chapter 3 we discover there is one problem with Wrinkles’ wish: Cyclops is not only a mythical creature, but also a giant, killer eye-bot (spelled “C.Y.K.L.O.P.S.”) built by an evil villain named “The Perfectionist” as an exact robotic replica of a human eye. The superhero Cow-boy recruits Wrinkles and together they seek to destroy the killer eye-bot who is wreaking havoc on the town of
Wrinkles the Wonderbrain ponders the imperfections of the human eye with super hero Cow-Boy. Image copyright Jay Hosler. It may not be copied without permission, except for a review. (I assume this means a book review, like I'm doing here, so I haven't asked for permission).
Another of these replicated imperfections of real human eyes becomes the eye-bot’s Achilles heel. Cow-boy and Wrinkles find and block the
In Chapter 4, Wrinkles finds himself tied up on the deck of a pirate ship crewed by misfit stalk-eyed flies. After teaching the human captain and his wife that acquired traits (like lost limbs) are not passed to offspring, Wrinkles learns about the plight of the crew. Where they are from, there is strong discrimination – only the males with the longest eye stalks can mate. Long stalked flies are better at fighting, and the females also prefer longer stalks, which might be an indicator of better genes. The flies’ tale of heartache is a lesson for Wrinkles on sexual selection. But Wrinkles does not win any friends by bluntly distilling the flies’ story as a description of “a bunch of wimpy, unattractive guys with bad genes”. Those wimps also own a big cannon, which they use to shoot Wrinkles off the ship. A short time later, Wrinkles finds himself on another island.
This time, Wrinkles washes up on an island inhabited by Clio, the muse of history in Greek mythology. After another brief, but still striking visual, where Wrinkles demonstrates the function of his wrinkles by inflating, showing how they allow folding more brain into a small skull, Clio introduces Wrinkles to the Cyclops. This time, it is the Cyclops that
In Chapter 6, Wrinkles meets the sun while in orbit. We learn about different kinds of radiation that the sun produces. Wrinkles apparently learned something on his five-year sabbatical in Clio’s library, because he eloquently explains how three different kinds of cone cells work together to produce color vision in humans. Wrinkles begins to feel the effects of the thin air at the edge of the atmosphere, so he bites another wish-granting newt eye, asking to be back down on Earth. When he lands, he finds that one of the Men In Black is convinced Wrinkles is an alien.
In Chapter 7, we learn that the man in black (Igor) actually works for Dr. Kleeshay, who plans to use a protein named Larry to take over the world. Larry is a self-described “ginormous rhodopsin molecule engineered by Dr. Kleeshay”. Some people call Larry the - here I can almost hear a dissonant organ chord to heighten the suspense, just before the squiggly text that reads - “Were-protein”. Larry, like any rhodopsin, can change shape. Larry’s shape changes when the retinal that is part of him is struck by light and changes itself. Next is another of my favorite set of images, simple but effective. Hosler draws a pretty standard line-representation of the chemical chromophore retinal, and Wrinkles shines a flashlight on it. In the next panel, the retinal straightens out, with motion lines and a sound effect, “ding”. Later, when light shines on Larry (the rhodopsin were-protein), the retinal makes a “clink” sound, and Larry changes shape, howling at the moon.
Larry the Were-protein is a giant rhodopsin molecule, complete with light reactive chemical, retinal. When light hits retinal, "ding", it changes shape. Below, Larry in his trans state after being exposed to light. Dr. Kleeshay wants to exploit Larry's Jeckyll and Hyde tendency to control the minds of millions. Image copyright Jay Hosler. It may not be copied without permission, except for a review. (I assume this means a book review, like I'm doing here, so I haven't asked for permission).
It turns out that Dr. Kleeshay is raising mutant zombie G-proteins, to be activated by Larry. Since a single opsin activates many G-proteins, which eventually lead to a photoreceptor sending a signal to the brain, Kleeshay plans to use Larry to turn millions into mindless zombie slaves. Luckily, Wrinkles knows that phosphates will quench rhodopsin signaling. Wrinkles adds phosphates to Larry, which happen to look like breasts in Hosler’s drawings, leading Larry to change his name to Lariette. After saving Larry(ette), Wrinkles pops another newt eye and hastily wishes to be as far away from Dr. Kleeshay and Igor as possible.
In Chapter 8, Wrinkles finds himself frustrated and sitting beneath a large shady tree. Actually, he finds out it is the tree, an idealized construct of the imagination, a Platonic type. The tree has been Yggdrasil, has dropped an apple on
The comic story is interleaved with text and figures describing in more detail the actual science behind Wrinkles’ adventures. These cover a lot of scientific ground in a short time, using an unconventional, somewhat snarky and irreverent writing style, that I think many will find entertaining, yet informative.
I have essentially no criticisms of Optical Allusions. There were a few very minor errors of interpretation. For example, in cavefish, we do not know what is the precise mutation that causes a change in gene expression level, or if multiple mutations are involved. Also, Pax is not “the gene” that co-ordinates all eye developmental genes. But these slight oversimplifications are inconsequential for the goals of this book. Optical Allusions seeks to present the wonders of science in a new way. In some ways, it is difficult to say who exactly the target audience is. But I expect any focused person, probably high school aged or older, with thick glasses, and a neon pocket protector in their lab coat, will have a great time reading Optical Allusions. Even though my area of specialty is eye evolution, I learned some new things from this book. I was especially inspired with new teaching ideas using the drawings. I highly recommend this book for its entertainment and educational value.