Comic Artist Uses Nerdy Humor to Explain Complex Scientific Concepts

When I grow up tease image for Bird and Moon.
When I grow up...

In the days leading up to the first airing of Carl Sagan's groundbreaking "Cosmos" television series in 1980, the celebrated astronomer wrote of his overarching goals for the popular science education program:

"We live in a time dominated by science and technology, and yet, it sometimes seems that almost no one understands very much about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster, especially in a democracy."

Society's understanding of the natural world has come a long way since "Cosmos," but even with the wonders of the Internet and steady investment in STEM education, that gap persists. And with the nonstop deluge of new discoveries on the horizon, it's safe to say that task is never done.

No one is expected to comprehend every single advance across all scientific disciplines, but the importance of having an engaged, broadly informed public can't be overstated. This is why the role of the "science communicator" is so vital.

One such science communicator who is making waves across the Internet is Rosemary Mosco, the cartoonist behind the wildly popular nature/science comic series "Bird and Moon." Mosco blends her clever wit, impeccable artistry and her experience as a field naturalist to articulate complicated scientific concepts to a broad audience.

"Bird Parts" comic
"Bird Parts". Rosemary Mosco/Bird and Moon

In an interview with MNN, Mosco talks about science communication, the art-science gap and her love of salamanders.

MNN: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how 'Bird and Moon' was started?

Rosemary Mosco: I've always loved both science and art. I grew up birding and collecting fossils (I was lucky to live near some wicked Ordovician shale). I also made comics for the school newspaper.

About 10 years ago, I was feeling lost, so I took some time off of college to try and figure out what my ideal career would look like. That's when I realized that, hey, I could mix science and communication. I made my first nature comic, a long-form story about birds in the city called "Bird and Moon."

What does it mean to be a science communicator and what role does this job play in the pursuit of scientific understanding?

"Science communicator" is a pretty new term, but I think it's absolutely necessary. Not all scientists have the time and resources to communicate their findings. Science communicators have some training in both science and communication, and they can move between the two worlds and help get information across. It's challenging but so rewarding. I split my time between comics and communication work at an environmental nonprofit, and I love the endless variety.

Secrete Weapon

What are some of the biggest challenges you've encountered as a science communicator?

There are so many! It's hard to strike that balance between detail and clarity. Also, so many scientists do amazing work, but they're used to describing it in an academic way. When I speak with them I try to get at the core — why do you love what you do? What's the most amazing thing about your work?

Maybe the hardest thing is that people often have a vague sense that they need science communicators, but they've never heard of the term, so they just describe this vague need and then move on. I keep saying "...and that's where science communicators come in!" I need this on a T-shirt, maybe with someone making jazz hands.

'Climate Change Shuffle'

Do you have any comics that you’re especially proud of?

I feel proud when I make a comic about an issue that I find complicated or emotionally painful to tackle. Climate change is the thing that scares me the most, and I feel proud of my climate comics (like the "Climate Change Shuffle," above). I also LOVE salamanders, and I made a comic about an emerging salamander disease and what you can do. It felt good. Pulling jokes out of hard times is rewarding.

As you illustrate in one of your most well-known comics (below), art and science can often feel like completely different worlds. Why do you think it’s important to bridge this gap?

The nice thing is that there's so much precedent for mixing art and science. Amazing botanical illustrations, important early diagrams, Ely Kish's dinosaurs, Galileo's hastily scribbled cartoons of Jupiter's moons moving ... I'm in some good company! I think that bridging the art-science gap is important because art and science can help make each other's messages stronger.

'Science Vs Art' comic

You recently began working on another comic titled 'Your Wild City' — can you tell us more about this project?

I'm so excited about it! My friend Maris Wicks and I are working on these weekly strips that help introduce city people to their wild neighbors. Most people are familiar with mice and deer and raccoons... but these creatures have so many weird secret traits, and there are obscure beings to meet, like book scorpions and greenshield lichen. Maris is an accomplished and talented science cartoonist, and I'm proud of what we're doing. Plus, Maris draws really, really funny squirrels.

What do you hope people will ultimately take away from reading your comics?

People protect what they love, and I want people to love nature and spread that love and help keep wild things around.

Identifying insects

Do you have any recommendations for comics, podcasts or other media that fans of 'Bird and Moon' might enjoy?

I love the podcast "Stuff You Missed in History Class" because it's two women who get excited about history in the same way that I get excited about nature. "Beatrice the Biologist" makes biology cartoons that are charming, accurate, and so funny. I think everyone should read Maris Wicks' amazing cartoon introduction to the human body. It's called "Human Body Theater."

And really, you can't go wrong with field guides. Buy a random field guide and use it to help you identify a couple of living things in your backyard. You'll be hooked.