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Roz Chast Explains the Universe

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Last month, when researchers at the Large Hadron Collider discovered a particle that behaved suspiciously like the Higgs boson, the theoretical particle that helps explain the existence of matter in the universe, I immediately thought of Roz Chast.

You know, the New Yorker cartoonist? The one so good at drawing wallpaper? And lamps? And little things?

Chast is no particle theorist, but she has published in the periodicals Scientific American and The Sciences, and she also published a book called Theories of Everything: Selected, Collected, and Health-inspected Cartoons, 1978-2006, which, if you really want to know everything, dovetails nicely with Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe, the book that made string theory (theoretical physicists’ theory of everything) accessible to the general reader. (And when I say "dovetails" I mean "has almost nothing to do with," since it's a book of cartoons.) Her work exploits the blatantly absurd organization of life as we know it through equally heaping portions of neuroses and her own cackle-inducing wit. But this isn’t to say Chast doesn’t draw science. She is very concerned about the universe.

The illustration to the left is a detail from her cover of the scholarly journal Symmetry: Dimensions of Particle Physics (4:4) from May 2007, which also includes her interpretations of "pseudoparticles," "sparticles," "marteenies," and other kinds of particles with faces. I do think that if my physics book in high school had included illustrations like this, I may have tried a little harder to understand what was going on.

She has also drawn a very handy FAQ pamphlet (below) about the Hadron Collider, which I appreciate immensely as a non-particle theorist who reads Scientific American with her brow in a deep and furious furrow. The text reads:

Q: How does the Hadron Collider work?

A: You didn’t even understand eleventh-grade math, so why are you asking?

Q: What would happen if I went inside it?

A: Just. Don’t.

Q: How many miles of pipes and whatnot are in it?

A: A bajillion© Roz Chast/The New Yorker Collection/www.cartoonbank.com. Reprinted with permission.© Roz Chast/The New Yorker Collection/www.cartoonbank.com. Reprinted with permission.

Q: How much did it cost?

A: Forty Squillion

Q: What does this thing do?

A: Don’t touch that.

Q: What would happen if you, like, put a cat inside it?

A: I don’t know.

Q: If I concentrate ultra-hard, will I ever be able to understand it?

A: No.

Roz Chast has come so far in explaining the universe — to those of us willing to listen, but, also, particularly to New Yorkers — that Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave her an award in April: the inaugural NYC Literary Honors, a new award that, according to NYC.gov, aims “to highlight the important role of authors and scholars who have demonstrated a lifetime of achievement and for whom New York has been a central inspiration,” and although this award is a bit more geographically focused than the universe, it's obviously a perfect match.

I realize I am preaching to the choir, and if you know Roz Chast’s work then you probably already love her, but if you don’t know her, then this post is for you: get yourself to a library or bookstore and feel a little less alone in the universe.

Below is a bibliography of Roz Chast's publications for adults and children at the New York Public Library:

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Roz Chast animated cartoon on pbs.org

From a member of the choir, thanks for sharing some of Roz Chast's hilarious insights into the universe! The first thing I do when my New Yorker arrives in the mail each week is search for her cartoons. They never fail to make me laugh, albeit sometimes ruefully. There is a wonderful animated cartoon on pbs.org that Roz Chast fans will enjoy. Check out her version of the classic fable The Ant and the Grasshopper: http://video.pbs.org/video/1912302893/

That's wonderful! I love it.

That's wonderful! I love it. Thank you, Elizabeth.

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