Science Faces

Science builds civilisations: Cartoonist

Ex-teacher behind science-based comics wants to inspire kids to invent new things

An excerpt from the second volume of Sir Fong's Adventures In Science series, explaining some of the magical properties of light. PHOTO: COURTESY OF OTTO FONG

"If you want to weaken a civilisation, stop its science." So says author, playwright and cartoonist Otto Fong, a former science teacher and engineer who is introducing children to quantum mechanics and other esoteric branches of science that even adults struggle to make sense of.

Mr Fong, 47, is the creator of the popular Sir Fong's Adventures In Science comic book series, of which about 15,000 copies have been sold. The fifth volume, The Quantum Bunny, was launched late last year, the culmination of his half-year stint as Outreach Fellow at the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore.

"The comic addresses the issues that school teachers are unable to in class, for example, 'why we are studying science' and 'what ethical issues are involved'," he says.

Mr Fong believes that the Government's decision to pump $19 billion into research over the next five years is a very wise move.

But without an educated public that appreciates the value of science, it would be hard to get support for such an investment, he says.

So he is grateful for invitations from local schools to give assembly talks - 12 to 18 of them a year.

Mr Fong is seen here with Qbit, the star character in The Quantum Bunny, the fifth volume of a popular comic book series he created. Qbit is inspired by the Japanese robotic cat Doraemon. ST PHOTO: TAMARA CRAIU

Most are in primary schools, where opportunities abound to foster scientific interest in children before their attention is diverted to more "pressing" issues such as romance or passing increasing numbers of exams.

students that science is not just about learning things that have been discovered, but also to learn how they can use this knowledge to create things that have not been invented.

Mr Fong started creating his own cartoons in primary school here, when he and his Taiwanese classmate doodled on science textbooks to make the lessons come to life.

He remembers a diagram in a textbook showing a beaker of concentrated acid, on which he drew a picture of Spiderman falling in and coming out of it reduced to a skeleton. And one of his early comics featured "a bunch of space monkeys dealing with rude interruptions from aliens", a nod to his own Chinese zodiac sign - the monkey.

None of those comics has survived. When he was in Primary 6, he drew erotic gongfu stories, but someone told him they were "sick". Deeply hurt, he took all his comics and burnt them.

But his passion for science and the art forms that celebrate it lived on.

Be it a comic strip, book or motion picture, he reckons that good science fiction harnesses real scientific principles to spin stories that are believable, like award-winning Chinese science fiction writer Liu Cixin's novel The Dark Forest that recently held him spellbound.

In the book, a future earth struggles to deal with aliens who try to stop research at the Large Hadron Collider, a real facility in Europe that makes groundbreaking advancements in particle physics.

In his apartment, a spare room is piled from floor to ceiling with box after box of memorabilia from great sci-fi movies.

A fan of Star Wars since its very beginnings in the late 1970s, Mr Fong picks up a treasured plastic Darth Vader figure, pointing out the beauty of its design and how he modified its shoulders to look more like the actual movie character.

Mr Fong has sci-fi tricks up his own sleeve too.

In Volume 4 of Adventures In Science, his alter ego, Sir Fong, time-travels to 2025 to find Singapore's huge population of 12 million living in a gigantic cube almost as wide as the island itself and as high as the clouds. Inside, modular homes and offices move around efficiently in a Tetris-like manner, minimising wastage of time and energy.

Who knows, he says, one of the children reading about Sir Fong's adventures might grow up to build just that kind of structure. "The young generation holds the stakes in the future," he adds.

There are some lessons doled out as well.

In Sir Fong's world, an overzealous minister of the future destroys all vegetation and wildlife within the cube in the quest to eliminate bacteria and disease. Isolated from nature, people's immune systems rapidly weaken. When a virus sneaks its way in, eight in 10 people perish.

In real life, when Mr Fong comes across a column of ants making off with stray morsels in his home, he leaves them alone. "They clean up for you and they go away by themselves," he explains, underscoring the fact that ants play an important role in recycling organic matter in the environment.

With last year's launch of The Quantum Bunny, Sir Fong's series went beyond what is taught in the school curriculum.

In the book, readers discover that the humble transistor found in most electronic devices is based on quantum mechanics, and that quantum mechanics could eventually help encrypt electronic messages in a way that is impossible to intercept.

The upcoming sixth volume will do so again, introducing young, inquisitive minds to the cutting-edge engineering techniques used to fabricate artificial biological structures.

This offers mind-boggling possibilities, such as creating artificial life, or making food and other organic resources from basic chemical ingredients on long space trips.

"Synthetic biology is going to change the world like nobody's business," explains Mr Fong, who is working on the book with the Centre for Synthetic Biology at the Nanyang Technological University.

Mr Fong is no stranger to treading an independent path, one that has led the former Raffles Institution teacher away from a conventional career at age 39, when he decided to write and illustrate his own comics full-time because it was what he truly loved.

In science, he adds, discoveries that moved civilisation forward were made by people who dared to think differently.

And he has high hopes of inspiring the next generation to use science to reach for the stars.

Pointing out that the human mind has the ability to observe and appreciate things much larger than itself, he says: "Our mind is bigger than the galaxy."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2016, with the headline Science builds civilisations: Cartoonist. Subscribe