Reading Diary: Les Rêveurs lunaires: Quatre génies qui ont changé l'Histoire by Cédric Villani and Baudoin

A bit of a change of pace for me and my reviewing habits -- a book written in French!

Of course, books about science or scientists are pretty typical review fodder for me. And even more typically, graphic novels about science or scientists are incredibly common for me to review. But books in French? This is a first.

During my recent month-long stay in Paris (sabbatical life FTW!) one of the things I really enjoyed about the City of Light was the profusion of bookstores. Bookstores, record stores, bandes dessinées stores, every neighbourhood had a least a handful of good ones. Which is in stark contrast with north america where you're luck if your neighbourhood has any good bookstores or record stores. So I definitely enjoyed Paris.

Hanging out in a neighbourhood bande dessinée shop (bande dessinée, or BD, is the word French-speaking people use for graphic novels), of course I had to ask what the story is with science-themed BDs. It seems that there's not much happening overall yet, but the clerk did point me to one recently published book that perfectly fits the bill.

That would be Les Rêveurs lunaires: Quatre génies qui ont changé l'Histoire by Cédric Villani and artist Edmond Baudoin.

The name Cédric Villani might be familiar to my mathematically inclined readers. He's the flamboyant French mathematician who won the Fields Medal in 2010 for his work on Landau damping and the Boltzmann equation. He's published a well-received memoir about his work in French which was recently translated and published in an English version as Birth of a Theorem: A Mathematical Adventure. And apparently, he is also a huge BD fan!

Which brings us to Les Rêveurs lunaires (Lrl).

Lrl is a wonderful socio-politico-historical-biographical treatise on four very important figures in the intersection of science and society during World War Two: Werner Heisenberg, Alan Turing, Leo Szilard and Hugh Dowding. Three of those are scientific household names to some degree but the fourth, Hugh Dowding, was a British soldier, Air Chief Marshall during the Battle of Britain to be exact. Which makes him a bit of an odd selection among the other three. But as we shall see, Villani has a very specific reason for contrasting Dowding's story with the other three.

And in many ways, this book is very much the story of those four men and what roles they played in WWII, where the scientists and mathematicians of each side vied with each other to get an edge, whether it be through developing atomic weapons or creating better secret codes than the other side or better yet, breaking the other side's codes without them knowing. Which is very much what Villani wants to highlight -- the stories of how those men worked on serious scientific problems, Heisenberg on the bomb for the Nazis, Turing on codebreaking for the allies, Szilard on the bomb for the Allies. What were the social and ethical implications of that work? Did the scientists have a higher duty to humanity? How did the societies that these men word for treat them in reward for the work they did? All very interesting questions.

As for the soldier? Well, the practical considerations of waging war are not immune to higher considerations.

Narratively speaking, Villani and Baudoin use their own conversations about the project as a framing device as they tackle each man's story in turn, with the occasional extra little sidebar. For the most part, each biographical section is told if not in the words of the subject, at very least very much from his point of view, their framing device allows them to sharpen the focus of what they want to say about science in society rather than solely the viewpoint of subjects themselves. Heisenberg certainly would not necessarily be the most objective person about his role in the Nazi atomic bomb development program. Szilard by contrast seems to be the author's favourite both in terms of his moral and ethical stances and how he was able to predict so much of what went on during the war and immediately after. Szilard's section definitely has all the moral outrage at the injustice, tragedy and waste of war. It's also the section where the authors do the most musing on the role of scientists and whether or not they should share their research for the benefit of the warmongers. Szilard's mix of pacifism and outrage are really the moral and narrative centre of the book.

Turing's story gets a very sympathetic treatment, even if they do end up portraying his death as suicide (they do acknowledge the controversy in the Postface at the end). Dowding the soldier gets a rather different treatment. His section emphasizes the role of preparation in winning wars as well as the ability to make concrete, timely decisions on the best information available.

Of course, much of the technology base and information that goes into those preparations and that decision-making process would come from the scientists or codebreaker roles that are profiled earlier. Villani uses this contrast to great effect. If the opening sections are all about creating doubt and ethical conundrums, the final section on Dowding is more of a "There's a war going on here" cold shower. Villani ultimately sides with the Turings and Szilards, the men who most want a more moral face on science, but he is ultimately aware that all is not black and white, that there are abundant shades of grey.

Overall, Cédric Villani and Edmond Baudoin's Les Rêveurs lunaires: Quatre génies qui ont changé l'Histoire is a terrific book, informative and thought-provoking. If it has any weaknesses, it is perhaps a little on the wordy side, being more of an illustrated book than really taking advantage of the dynamic nature of the graphic novel medium. It's "Frenchness" in some parts might be a bit jarring to non-European readers, but at least until it's translated into English that won't be too much of an issue. Baudoin's art is very good: claustrophobic, dark, moody and intense, the perfect tone for the serious subject matter. I do wish he'd had the chance to stretch out a little and show a more dynamic and narrative side of the story.

I recommend this book without hesitation to any public or academic library that collects French-language graphic novels, especially those with scientific or historical themes. Given the level of French, it would be suitable for high school libraries which support French immersion programs. It would also make a great gift for any science or history graphic novel fan with a decent French reading level.

Speaking of which, this would be a great book to translate into English. Hint hint.

And further speaking of science-themed French graphic novels, one series I spotted in Paris but didn't buy any copies of (luggage already full & BDs are heavy...) is the Tu mourras moins bête series by Marion Montaigne. The title translates as "You will die less stupid." They all cover scientific ideas with the first tackling science in the movies. I can't wait for a chance to get a hold of this series!

Villani, Cédric and Edmond Baudoin. Les Rêveurs lunaires: Quatre génies qui ont changé l'Histoire. Paris: Gallimard/Grasset, 2015. 192pp. ISBN-13: 978-2070665938


Other science graphic novels and illustrated books I have reviewed:


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Merci! Je vais recommander ces livres a mes gars!