Interview: Ben Newman & Dominic Walliman

The second in a series of educational titles by Flying Eye Books, Professor Astro Cat's Atomic Adventure, takes the reader of a journey through the incredible world of physics. Now with two books, some beautiful wrapping paper and an app to his name (not to mention his very own Twitter account), Professor Astro Cat is a cat with a cause - getting people interested in science!

When studying science at school, I had what I expect is a very common problem - no matter how much of the many textbooks I read, only a small fractions of information managed to break its way into my mind. That said, had I had Professor Astro Cat as a teacher, I am sure it would have been a very different story! Whether it is printed or digital, the injection of adventure into the science lesson makes it an infinitely more engaging experience and is bound to spark an interest in science in children of any age!

I caught up with the clever cat's creators - illustrator Ben Newman and physicist Dr. Dominic Walliman - to find out more about Astro Cat's latest adventure...

Let’s start at the beginning - how did you first meet and was Professor Astro Cat the first project you worked on together?

Ben: Yes, Professor Astro Cat is the first project we’ve worked on. We’ve been friends since secondary school and got to know Dominic better when he and a friend of ours put on a comedy night. A few of my close friends and I were involved in the evening. We always stayed in touch despite going off on very different paths. We’re from the same town so we’d always meet up at Christmas.

Dominic: I got really into astrophysics when I was in 6th form after reading a book that tied in with a BBC documentary series called Universe. I wasn't studying physics at the time, but I remember all the facts blowing my mind, and I used to come into school and tell everyone all the crazy stuff I had learned. I think that is probably why Ben thought of me when he wanted to make the book; and I jumped at the chance!

How did the idea for the character originally come to you?

B: I worked in a bookshop for many years and being an avid collected of 50 & 60s science books, I was saddened by the lack of love that appeared to be going into books as an object and as a piece of design. It got me thinking that if I made a whole book about Space then there could be an alternative to what was already on the market. I talked to Alex and Sam at Nobrow about it and they loved the idea but I needed to find a writer because there is no way I could cover the subject correctly. So I asked Dom if he’d like to write it.

The book originally didn't have Astro Cat in it. He'd existed since 2007 (a failed job for a record company that was never used) in prints and wrapping paper I'd designed but I hadn't considered using him for this book which, in hindsight, is very strange. Dominic pointed out that the book would benefit from having a narrator. This seem like the perfect opportunity to use Professor Astro Cat so I suggested it and we all agreed.

After the success of your first Flying Eye Book, why did you decide that Professor Astro Cat’s next adventure should be Physics-based?

D: When I was a youngster I remember having lots of science books, but I never has a book specifically on Physics. I really wanted to do a comprehensive physics book for the 7-11 age range because for me, the subject is wildly fascinating. We thought we could do a book that covers all of physics and makes it fun and easy to understand. I hope me managed that!

B: While Dominic loves everything science, we thought it would be great to focus on his main area of expertise. We wanted to look at creating a science book that included lots of modern physics rather than just things from the school curriculum. 

Why do you think it is important for children to learn about science from an early age?

D: I meet many grown ups who, when I say I'm a physicist, react with something along the lines of "Oh I was never very good at physics in school". I feel that many people have stigmatised the subject because they had a bad experience in school, perhaps they found it uninspiring or didn't enjoy all the relentless tests. I think this is a huge shame as it is robbing people of the hugely gratifying experience that is learning about the Universe works at a fundamental level.

So I think it would be great if children were exposed to science when they are growing up, and have excellent materials that make it fun and, well, just another normal thing that they do. I guess I wish science was a bit more mainstream in our entire culture.

B: I think a child’s first experience with science should be a positive and inclusive one otherwise its hard to win them back around when they go to school.

How does your collaborative process work? 

B: We stay in touch via email and Skype despite the time difference of our homes. We have come to realise that working the running order of the book out together is very important. Once that is done, Dominic produces a first draft which we then both work on and send it between one another. This throws up solutions and more questions so we keep going until we have a strong foundation text for me to illustrate from. Dominic will source and help with technical diagrams or graphics to make sure that I don't draw anything incorrect.

D: Our work mostly involves me getting down a first draft of each spread and then running it past Ben. Then we do several iterations of back and forth, cutting things out and adding things in. Then when Ben is illustrating we do a few more tweaks on the text, and I sometimes help out on the images if Ben gets stuck on thinks like the technical details. I think it helps that I'm a very visual person and have some art and graphic design skills.

Is there anything you find difficult about working together? Any annoying habits that get on each others nerves?

B: Both our jobs have given us pretty thick skins so we are very direct with each other. This immediately stops any problems from happening. Dominic will be the first to admit that he can get quite carried away when he’s writing. Things can start to get very technical so its my role to help steer us back round in the right direction. Its not annoying in the slightest though. In fact, its the opposite. Its one of the fun parts about working as a team.

D: Honestly, I think we work really well together. I think we started off in a good place being old buddies, then we have gradually worked out all the difficulties in doing ambitious books like these. I think we both put the quality of the books first and cut anything that isn't serving that, which is great as we are both coming from the same place.

Ben, how much did you know about science before the books?

B: I have a collection of old science books from the 50s onwards on lots of different subjects. I love seeing things explained well visually especially in science and I’d like to keep that sense of fun and intrigue alive in modern science books. I hope thats how others feel when they look at the books.

And Dominic, do you have much say in the design side of things?

D: Ben has total freedom to arrange the information in whatever way he sees fit, and I try and write the science down in ways that make that easier. Short sentences. But also Ben has asked me to help out with a few of the designs, normally when he is stuck on how to visualise something very technical or abstract. It is nice that a few of my sketches have got into the final books.

Can you give any hint as to what form Astro Cat’s next adventure might take?

B: I’m very close to starting to draw the next book. I can’t say too much but the Professor will have his feet firmly on the ground for the next one although maybe not in this era.

D: I can't wait to be able to share the next book, it is going to be super fun! 

And finally - if Astro Cat could come to life, what would he do first?

B: Fix himself an exceptional tuna sandwich.

D: And take a moment to reflect on how amazing the Universe is, and how great it is to be alive!