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Review: The Manga Guide to Relativity

I have a confession to make. I've never liked Physics a whole lot. As an undergrad at Stanford I had to take a number of basic Physics classes. Much of what we had to do was to apply formulas to compute the masses of tiny objects or to compute tiny forces. The way Physics was taught frustrated me because I developed no grounding in the subject. I could be off by many orders of magnitude and not have a clue. Was the mass of that tiny thing 10^-20 grams or 10^-30 grams? Beats me. My Math education on the other hand was much better, especially before my college years. I developed an intuitive ability to manipulate symbols and to work with abstract concepts which I never developed in Physics.

When the nice folks at No Starch Press offered me a review copy of The Manga Guide to Relativity (Manga Guide Series) I was reluctant to accept it. I won't review books I don't like although I'm certainly willing to report issues with books I do generally like.

I like Manga books. I've reviewed the Manga Guide to Calculus and the Manga Guide to Statistics. I love the idea of turning difficult and detailed ideas into a story. I recently reviewed Keith Devlin's new book, Mathematics Education for a New Era: Video games as a Medium for Learning. In that book I learned the importance of creating an environment that engages students in learning. Video games, if they're designed with the right principles, can do that in the context of computers. Manga books, in my judgment, create an excellent space for learning on the printed page.

So, what do I think of this book? It's lighter on the Math than I would expect. It's heavy on introducing ideas. The story is entertaining. Michael Larsen has a great review at Amazon. Here's his introduction to the plot:

The most recent title, "The Manga Guide to Relativity" (written by Hideo Nitta, Masafumi Yamamoto and Keita Takatsu) uses the classic story techniques common to most fans of manga; student body president Ruka Minagi takes on a challenge from Rase Iyaga, the sadistic and capricious school headmaster (who also has a penchant towards androgyny, but hey, for anyone with more than a passing familiarity with Manga titles, this is par for the course) to write a report about relativity, thus sparing the rest of the class from having to do it over summer break. If he succeeds, the rest of the class will be spared the assignment. If he fails, he has to agree to be Iyaga's "personal assistant" for the next school year. All is not lost, though, as Physics teacher Alisa Uraga agrees to teach Minagi about relativity so that he can complete the challenge. With that, an adventure begins.

Most of the small number of reviewers at Amazon gave the book 5-stars. I love that the book introduces a large number of concepts in a relaxed way. As another Amazon reviewer, John Jacobson, noted, the Relativity book makes a number of important scientific ideas available to the non-mathematician. Jacobson's list includes:

  • the term "relativity"
  • the idea of frames of reference
  • the difference between general and special relativity (it took Einstein 10 years to explore and explain
  • general relativity after he'd published his initial paper on special relativity)
  • the space-time continuum
  • the speed limit of the universe (light speed)
  • strange physical effects on a body when its velocity approaches the speed of light (length contraction, increasing mass, time dilation)
  • the derivation of the most famous equation of all time
  • the relationship between energy and mass
  • the relationship between gravity and acceleration
  • Einstein's geometric view of space-time
  • Black holes
  • Gravity and the GPS system

While the ideas may be more accessible in comic form they're still not simple ideas and I certainly can't say that I now understand relativity. But, I'm now willing to consider that I might someday like Physics, especially if I stick with the conceptual stuff for a good long while to get my bearings.

I very much look forward to the next Manga book.

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