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Inside the Head of a Science Cartoonist

It’s a brilliant mess
Krill small talk


"Krill Small Talk…"
Image courtesy of S. Harris, copyright www.ScienceCartoonsPlus.com

Right off the bat, Sidney Harris makes it clear that he’s not a scientist. He’s a cartoonist who grew up in Brooklyn and drew for Playboy but also happens to know about neutrinos and the beginning of the universe. “I get the gist of it,” Harris says. “Neutrinos come from outer space. They go through everything, there’s a billion of them going through my hand right now…. Maybe?” He laughs, “I don’t know.”

Harris isn’t just any cartoonist. He’s drawn over 34,000 cartoons during his near 60-year career for magazines like American Scientist, The New Yorker, Discover and Science. And he’s published a handful of cartoon books covering a wide array of themes. His latest mocks America’s filthy food industry.

Cartoonists are dilettantes. “We know a little about a lot of things,” says Sam Gross, a cartoonist for The New Yorker who has known Harris for 50 years and still meets him for French food on 46th Street in Manhattan each week. “But with Sidney, as far as the science is concerned, he knows a lot more than a little bit.”

Now in his 80s (he won’t give his exact age) Harris claims that he has never held a real job. He recounts one bout of semi-employment with Rapid Messenger Service on 40th Street before he began cartooning. “I don’t know if you’d call it a job,” Harris says. “I don’t even know what was in the messages, I just delivered them.” He could only stand the position for a couple of weeks before quitting.

Nowadays, Harris pokes fun mainly at cosmology and the principles of physics. Although he claims he’s never taken a physics class, he retains a collection of elegant scientific facts (or rather, “factoids,” as he calls them). Factoid number one: An atom is mostly open space. He once read that if not for that space between the elementary particles in an atom, the Empire State Building would be the size of a pill. “This is made of atoms and it certainly seems solid,” Harris says, knocking his fist on a wooden desk.

Harris left the bustle of New York City 26 years ago and has lived in New Haven, Conn., ever since. His house here resembles a maze. The upstairs studio where he works is accessible from two different staircases, each lined with a hodgepodge of paintings and framed cartoons. The first upstairs room is littered with misplaced mail, pens without caps and baseball figurines. He calls his love for the Dodgers “sort of a religion.”

In the next room Harris plops into a chair in front of his desk and grabs a fountain pen. This is where he draws most every Saturday and Sunday. A college-ruled notebook sits on his desk, about a quarter full of cartoon ideas, with the first page reading: October 2011. “This is all I did in two years,” he says. “Pretty skimpy.” He has piles of these notebooks, dates scribbled across each cover going as far back as 1955.

Gross says Harris’s work is so distinct that “he doesn’t even need to sign it.” His drawings employ minimal line work and are quite simple. Perhaps the most minimalist of all, “The Universe before the Big Bang” (shown “actual size”) is a single black dot in the middle of a white background; it appeared as a full page spread in the magazine Science 80 and was included in the second edition of his book, “Einstein Simplified.” In the midst of producing the book, the printer thought the dot was a smear and eliminated it. They printed 7,500 copies with the mistake, says Harris, and the publisher had to recall all of them and restamp every dot back onto each drawing. This finicky cartoon is the likely offshoot of Harris’s second-favorite factoid: before the big bang there was no such thing as space. “We just can’t understand that,” he says.

Though Harris wouldn’t call cartooning a passion, it’s not exactly work for him either. He says he just “knows how to do it,” so he does. In fact, his favorite part is coming up with the ideas themselves. “But the drawings. It’s like, ugh, I’ve got to do the damn drawing now,” he admits.

If Harris were ever to have a “real job” he might be a file clerk. “I’m so good at organization,” he says. And it’s easy to see: All of Harris’s drawings are cleverly archived by cartoon subject in a stack of file cabinets within his studio.

Looking through these cabinets of old cartoons, Harris admits that he doesn’t remember most of them. Despite the frustration, Harris can’t help but be entertained by, and even a little in awe of, his own age. He points to an archived photo of himself in his 20s, then quickly yanks up a shirtsleeve—“See! I still have black hair”—drawing attention to the dark hair on his forearm, in contrast to the white hair on his head. He looks astonished: “Isn’t that interesting? I find that amazing.”

And perhaps it’s just this that keeps Harris young at heart: his relentless ability to be amazed. Harris jumps to factoid number three: “Matter is solidified light. I don’t get it. But isn’t that wonderful, if it’s true?” (Editor’s note: It is not true.)

This article is provided by Scienceline, a project of New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.

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