Optical Allusions

Jay Hosler has a new book out, Optical Allusions(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). If you’re familiar with his other books, Clan Apis(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll) and The Sandwalk Adventures(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), you know what to expect: a comic book that takes its science seriously. Hosler has a fabulous knack for building serious content into a light and humorous medium, just the kind of approach we need to get wider distribution of science into the culture.

This one has a strange premise. Wrinkles the Wonder Brain is an animated, naked brain working for the Graeae Sisters, and he loses the one eye they share between them — so he has to go on a quest to recover it. I know, it sounds like a stretch, but it works in a weird sort of way, and once you start rolling with it, you’ll find it works. Using that scenario to frame a series of encounters, Wrinkles meets Charles Darwin and learns how evolution could produce something as complex as an eye; talks about the sub-optimal design of retinal circuitry with a cow superhero; discovers sexual dimorphism with a crew of stalk-eyed pirates; learns about development of the eye from cavefish and a cyclops; chats with Mr Sun about the physics of radiation; there are even zombie G proteins and were-opsins in a lesson about shape changing. This stuff is seriously weird, and kids ought to eat it up.

It isn’t all comic art, either. Each chapter is interleaved with a text section discussing the details — you can read the whole thing through, skipping the text (like I did…), and then go back and get more depth and directions for future reading in the science. This is a truly seditious strategy. Suck ’em in with the entertainment value, and then hand ’em enough substance that they might just start thinking like scientists.

It’s all good stuff, too. A colleague and I have been considering offering an interdisciplinary honors course in physics and biology with the theme of the eye, specifically for non-science majors, and this book has me thinking it might make for a good text. It’ll grab the English and art majors, and provide a gateway for some serious discussions that will satisfy us science geeks. I recommend it for you, too — if you have kids, you should grab all of Hosler’s books. Even if you don’t have kids, you’ll learn a lot.

Jay Hosler also explains the intent of the project, and you can read an excerpt.


  1. Stephen Wells says

    Be sure to mention Newton sticking a bodkin into his eye socket, so that he could understand how deforming the shape of his eye affected what he saw.

  2. says

    Yeah, as surprising as it may seem, we English majors are actually a fairly intelligent and curious bunch.

    Those sound like the kinds of books I should buy and contribute to my small-town library in rural Missouri. I think the work of enlightenment could bear some fruit there.

    Thanks for this info.

  3. Anhomoioi says

    ALSO: Hecht has a good bit on entoptic perception in his book on Optics: this effect is described in his section on the eye – about page 179. The effect is quite interesting to observe and is not terribly hard to achieve:

    Entoptic Perception Quick Guide:

    Note: You will look funny, so don’t do this on a public street using a street light as a light source. Also, it takes a little practice to defocus the eye and to keep the eye unfocused: this will likely require a few attempts.

    1) In a mostly darkened room, close one eye.

    2) Defocus the other eye while squinting at a light source across the room until only a circle of glare is seen.

    3) Place a hand between the light source and the squinting eye while maintaining the lack of focus. (The pupil expands.)

    4) Remove the hand while maintaining the lack of focus…
    (The pupil contracts.)

    The pupil having expanded in the low light constricts around the circle of glare when the hand is removed from its interposition between the eye and the light source.

    One sees this constriction as the diminishing diameter of the circle of glare. So, one is observing the advancing edge of the shadow of the iris on the retina.


  4. Jack Chastain says

    That was WAY more fun to read than that poetry (term used loosly) from before….


  5. Olorin says

    “Were-opsin” should be “weropsin.” Although wer(e)wolf, can be spelled with or without the second ‘e’, the only other word using “wer” (“wergeld”) always omits it.

  6. Paul K. says

    I received an Amazon shipment on Friday that included Sandwalk Adventures. After reading it, my immediate reaction was “wow, that was great”.

    Then I ran around the house and made my wife and kids read it. Same reaction from them. :)

    The more I think about it, the more I like it. Will definitely pick up the other two… Thanks for the “heads up”.

  7. Randy says

    “Are Mormons OK with Evolution?”

    Yes and No.

    Duane Jeffery, a biology prof at BYU, is a member of the board of directors of NCSE. Most of the Bio profs at BYU are evolutionists. Among the strongest programs in biology at BYU is the evolution and systematics program. But many members of the church are ardent creationists.

  8. says

    Clan Apis is still an absolute favorite graphic novel of mine, strong story and serious science. I’ve been meaning to pick up Sandwalk Adventures for a while now, and this sounds lie the excuse I need. Thanks for the heads up!

  9. says

    Wrinkles the Wonder Brain is an animated, naked brain

    How could I NOT buy this book?

    Plus, on the cover, he’s wrapped in a tentacle!!!

  10. Hank Roberts says

    Tangential —

    PZ, I’ve been meaning to ask if you have a wonderful Firefox extension or some other too that gives you those book sources you link as
    (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll)? Or is this hand-done?

    (It’s so consistent, I wondered. And I’d love to see it done by everyone, everywhere. I use BookBurro a lot, but it’s not quite the same thing and more geographically focused)

  11. says

    I ordered “Black Holes and Uncle Albert” by Russell Stannard for my 10 year old son on PZ’s recommendation, and the kid simply devoured it, and it led to some great conversations between us.

    I was just about to order “The Time and Space of Uncle Albert” for him when I saw this, so I ordered both – but he’s definitely going to have to share this one with Dad! :)

  12. Arnosium Upinarum says

    You’re right PZ – this is the kind of thing that shows kids what many of us already know: that science is cool. We desperately need more Hosler and others with this kind of skill-craft. It’s VALUABLE!

  13. says

    PZ. I hate cold weather. Please don’t make me come to Morris to take that class!

    If only we’d had this when I was in college. Physical geography with the local weatherman was good enough (this is a man who brings half an umbrella to be prepared for the 50% chance of rain, and yes, his classes were a riot). But this? Feed the literary beast and teach science too? This English major would’ve been begging for seconds! So yes, if you were wondering: it’s a fantastic idea, get on it, and I’ll lay in a supply of longjohns.

  14. B.C. Lack says

    Oh. my. goodness! My husband, bless his heart, has never in his life (not even in high school) taken a biology class.
    I feel like a kid in a candy store — “I want this one, and this one, and ooooooooooh, I want this one too! I don’t know if I want these more for him or for me ;)