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The Manga Guide to Relativity

by Brian Dunning, May 19 2011

The latest from No Starch Press is another in their series of Manga guides, three of which I’ve reviewed here before (The Manga Guide to Calculus, and the Guides to Physics and Statistics). The idea is a simple one: Teach a subject that’s normally dry and boring, but do it in a narrative comic book format that provides so much fun you’re not even aware that you’re learning. That’s the idea, anyway.

It’s a good idea, in my opinion, but executed in a, well, pretty thin way. I wanted to like these books a lot (as an anime fan), and they’re OK. The thing is that relativity and all its funky cool effects (time dilation, changes in mass, etc.) can make great plot points. I’d expect these stories to be action adventures, where the physics of what’s happening play active roles in the story, and the characters need to understand and predict what’s going on. Learning on the fly, with millions of lives at stake!

Too much to ask for, I guess. It’s the frustrated screenwriter in me thinking out loud. Like the others, the plot of this book centers around a character needing to learn something for a class, or for work, or for some mundane purpose. The information is thus delivered by talking heads, not really getting much more exciting than the odd demonstration or two. If you’re looking for explosions, aliens, universes at stake, and the ubiquitous manga love triangles, the Manga Guides may fall short of expectations.

But for what they are, they are still quite serviceable. They’re indexed so you can look things up; each section ends with a few textbook-style summary pages; and they give a pretty thorough overview of the subject. And, what the heck; it lends a certain amount of nerd cred to have these on your shelf.

7 Responses to “The Manga Guide to Relativity”

  1. PoonofWug says:

    Oddly this is why the Game of Thrones show is painful for me to watch. It’ll be flowing along well and they will stop to cram in some info that you would have caught reading the books. It always comes across as stilted and out of place.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      Those bits are critical to those of us who don’t read fiction.

      • PoonofWug says:

        In the books flashbacks were primarily used to convey this info. I think that would be a less jarring way to fill in the back story. With only a limited amount of episodes I can understand cramming it in with exposition totally unrelated to the containing scene. I don’t have to like it though.

  2. Robo Sapien says:

    Brian, I hereby commission you to author the Manga Guide to Skepticism. Do it.

  3. greg says:

    Larry Gonick has been publishing various “Cartoon Guides to” for about 20 years now. Physics, Statistics, US History, The History of the Universe and several more.

  4. feralboy12 says:

    Are cartoon characters subject to relativistic effects? We know they don’t respond to Newtonian physics in any predictable fashion.
    Time dilation might be negated by opening an umbrella, for example. Of course, contraction in the direction of motion would result in the accordian effect.

  5. MarvelFan says:

    Well, I’m just suprised that someone as serious/science-minded as you is a fan of Anime ^_^

    It seems to me a lot of people believe that just because a person is a fan of non-scientific stuff like anime of comics you can’t also have a skeptical mind as well, its good to see you prove them wrong (I think I’ll check out one of these mangas).