Keywords: Manga, physics, relativity, pop-science

Title: The Manga Guide To Relativity

Author: Hideo Nitta, Masafumi Yamamoto, Keita Takatsu and Trend-Pro Co, Ltd

Publisher: No Starch Press

ISBN: 1593272723


Cartoon guides to complex topics are nothing new - all but the most obscure topics have been covered in cartoon form at one time or another. In this case we have a book of manga to guide us into the arcane world of Einstein's theories of relativity. The question is, does the book work as a quick introduction or is this simply a bit of a gimmick?

The first thing to point out that this does work as manga. All of the characteristics you'd expect from a manga comic are here. It's not just the graphic style, it's the content too. The introduction is structured around a simple story: it's the end of term and the high school students are preparing for the summer vacation, the school principal springs a surprise assignment and it means that student president Minagi has to prepare a paper on relativity, at which point physics teacher Alisa Uraga steps forward with an offer to help. That's our intro to the world of relativity. There are lots of common manga motifs at work: the school principal has ulterior motives, physics teacher Uraga goes from prim school miss to bikini babe at one point, the vice principal is a dog, there are flashes of violence? Regular readers of manga comics will know the landscape.

If it works as manga, does it work as physics manual? The answer is a yes, but to a point. Obviously a book like this can only work as a very, very basic introduction, but it does cover both the special theory or relativity and the general theory. We get to understand something of the historical context, particularly with the idea of Galilean relativity. We learn most of the main headlines of the theories: time dilation, length contraction, the relationship between energy and mass, the nature of space-time and so on.

What makes it really work as an introduction is that at certain points the comics give way to text. In some ways the quick essays that intersperse the comics provide the real meat that is needed to complement the content of the comics. In the text we get to see some of basic algebra that underpins the theories (such as Lorentz transformations), and we walk through in more detail some of the thinking described in the comics. Without these bits of text, which are well written and easy to follow, the book as a whole would be far less successful.

So, in all it works as an introduction that should appeal to comic fans wanting a very high-level introduction to Einstein. It doesn't have the depth of a text book, obviously, but compared to some cartoon guides this one scores pretty highly. On the other hand, if comics are not your thing, then it's doubtful that you'll get much here that you can't get from any number of pop-science guides to relativity or physics.

Contents © London Book Review 2011. Published May 21 2011