Comic books in the physics classroom
A series of Japanese-style comic books aims to teach physics to schoolchildren. Are the books effective?
July 31, 2012Published: July 31, 2012
One of the most popular graphic art forms worldwide is manga, a general term for Japanese comic literature. Manga has been popularized in the West by such anime videos as Dragon Ball, Naruto, and Sailor Moon—all designed to entertain teens and preteens. But in Japan, the art form is also used in serious literature and instructional materials, and it is read by people of all ages.
Given that physics topics tend to require diagrams and visual explanations to go with text, it's not a stretch to imagine moving information from a densely illustrated textbook to the more playful manga style. Indeed, fictional narratives—including George Gamow's Mr. Tompkins series and Galileo Galilei's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, with such characters as Salviati, Sagredo, and Simplicio—have an established tradition in science education.
A recently launched manga series of science and mathematics books updates that concept using an approach akin to a lecture with illustrations and a narrative. Published by No Starch Press (San Francisco) and Ohmsha (Tokyo), the physics-related titles to date are The Manga Guide to Physics (2009), The Manga Guide to Electricity (2009), The Manga Guide to Relativity (2011), and The Manga Guide to the Universe (2011).
As fans of manga, and as a science student (Ivy) and science educator (Sandy), we wanted to see for ourselves how effective the Manga Guides are at teaching science, engaging students, and staying true to the manga comic style. Overall, we found the books absolutely amazing for teaching complex ideas and theories to people of nearly any age, though some parts will be tricky for readers who don't have a college-level understanding of the subject.
Despite having different sets of authors and illustrators, all four books had a similar black-and-white visual style, and all of them, though translated from Japanese, will be highly readable to Western audiences. The use of comic art and descriptive text is well balanced. The primary pedagogical device of each book is to present problems within the narrative, use laboratories—brief blackboard-like, text-dense boxed sessions devoted to core scientific concepts—to elaborate on the physics, and then resume the narrative, in which the concepts are applied.
The Manga Guide to Physics focuses on forces and momentum, using a story about Megumi, a tennis student who gets a friend to teach her physics so she can improve her game. The highly content-heavy coverage is split into four chapters: law of action and reaction, force and motion, momentum, and energy. Within the presentation is an ongoing narrative of Megumi applying the lessons in a tennis game, with the tennis vector mechanics fully diagrammed. The book does not shy away from introducing calculus concepts even though it is designed for an audience with a precalculus background.
The Manga Guide to Electricity teaches concepts using a fun story about Rereko, a schoolgirl from another planet who comes to Earth to study electricity. The story plays with the fish-out-of-water concept but primarily spends its pages on the educational material. Rereko learns about electricity—enough to pass her physics class back home—before returning to be her teacher's assistant. The plot makes the subject much more understandable. The strength of the guide is the strong connection it makes between the concepts and the real-world examples it shows when the characters ask, "What if I did X?" or "What makes Y work?" The illustrations do more to explain electrical current and circuits than traditional textbook diagrams.
The plot for The Manga Guide to Relativity centers on schoolboy Minagi, who over his summer break needs to write a report on relativity. Minagi and his tutor, Miss Uraga, go back and forth as she teaches him about the theories of relativity. The unfolding plot presents the otherwise complicated theories in fun ways. The manga excels in putting forth relativity concepts, such as the confusing theories of the twin paradox in special relativity and speed-of-light mechanics.
In The Manga Guide to the Universe, Gloria, an exchange student and ardent Japanophile, joins the high school drama club. After being taught about space, the drama students produce a modern, science-filled version of Japanese fairy tale about a Moon princess. The plot touches on many of the ideas about the universe at both the astronomical and cosmological levels, and it was fun to read. The use of a drama club and the multiple characters humanizes the material and helps the plot to swing along. Occasionally, an astronomy professor steps into the narrative to provide an explanation, but that turned out to not be that intrusive. The guide also fulfills the "pretty picture" requirement of any astronomy text by having eight pages of color images at the end. The non-manga interludes include a history of astronomy, a typical astronomy textbook "stamp collecting" set of lists—historical people, planets, and famous telescopes—and several distance methods introduced at the appropriate time and scale. And, of course, there is a discussion of whether aliens exist.
In terms of thoroughness of the material, all the guides are equally suitable introductions that neither coddle the reader nor induce information overload. But middle school and high school students will need to reread the books to fully grasp the material. We both had to read the Physics guide once to see how the story was resolved and then again to understand the physics descriptions we had merely skimmed the first time. In some ways, making two passes is a virtue: The first pass introduces the material in a story fashion, and the second reinforces the science and underlying mathematics and deepens the reader's understanding.
In terms of storyline, we found the Physics guide the strongest and the Relativity guide the weakest. The physics in the Physics guide is solid and understandable, and the storyline is engaging as it blends physics concepts with narrative. The Universe guide contains a sampling of diverging topics in the narrative and in its somewhat dry, textbook-like page inserts. That presentation gave it a more disjointed feel, but the enjoyable storyline provided welcome transitions between the wide ranges of topics. The Electricity guide works the science concepts more into the narrative than the Physics guide; however, the recap sections at the end of each chapter made the otherwise hilarious narrative less compelling and more like a traditional textbook. The back-and-forth dialog of the Relativity guide makes it rather dry and lecture-like, but since relativity is a mind-blowing subject, the accompanying illustrations more than compensate for what the narrative lacks.
Passing the test
Regarding the manga elements, the primary problem with the series is perhaps cultural. Some of the artistic conventions that Western manga fans have come to expect go unexplained: for example, using "anger marks" to express emotion or "chibi," tiny versions of the main characters, to add cuteness. But that's a minor criticism, given that the books are supposed to be more like textbooks. Science-minded manga fans are going to be generally pleased.
But do the Manga Guides pass the pedagogical test? They passed the curiosity test with Ivy's middle school peers. And given the low price ($19.95 each), we highly recommend that middle school and high school libraries stock a set to draw in the casual science fan. On the other hand, Sandy did not have much luck getting college students to read them because they didn't consider the guides serious enough to use as a class supplement or "manga enough" to read for pure entertainment. Moreover, the manga narratives are a bit too long to present in a typical week of class.
However, for self-study, the series is a credible option for students willing to accept the manga format for a serious topic. The books fill a necessary gap between narrative nonfiction and conventional textbooks. The lecture call-outs are clear, are terse, and make an excellent set of review guides for people who want either a supplement to or a review of physics material. The running motif of "student in trouble needs science to rescue her, or him" is a wonderful device that kept us engaged throughout. With an information level above that of coffee-table books, they are excellent primers for serious study of physics topics.
Ivy Antunes is a student at Kenmoor Middle School in Landover, Maryland. She is president of the Science Bowl team and a multiyear regional science fair prize winner. Her father, Alex "Sandy" Antunes, is an astronomer; a professor at Capitol College in Laurel, Maryland; and the designer of the Project Calliope picosatellite, which, when launched, is expected to convert the ionosphere into sound data.