Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Book Review: The Manga Guide to Physics

Authors: Hideo Nitta and Keita Takatsu Format: Paperback, 248 pages Publisher: No Starch Press (May 13, 2009) ISBN-10: 1593271964 ISBN-13: 978-1593271961 "I can't change the laws of physics! I've got to have thirty minutes!" -Scotty The aforementioned quote is from the original Star Trek series episode The Naked Time. As you may (or may not) recall, the Enterprise crew had become infected with a disease that did away with all inhibitions and good judgment, allowing everyone to express their deepest thoughts, feelings, and fantasies. Riley (played by Bruce Hyde) had locked everyone out of engineering so as "Captain", he could control the ship. He also unfortunately, turned off all of the engine power while the Enterprise was orbiting an ancient planet in the process of breaking up. When Scotty and the crew regained control of engineering, the ship was entering the planet's upper atmosphere and was minutes away from fiery destruction. Kirk wants the engines started NOW! but you "can't mix matter and antimatter cold". The "laws of physics" say so. Sure. Kirk, Spock, and Scotty get the engines started, invent the time warp, and all is right again, but just exactly what "laws of physics" was Scotty talking about? For that matter (no pun intended) what are the "laws of Physics"? The answer to that question may not be easy to learn for some of you. Like electricity and databases, technical subjects aren't always effortless to grasp, let alone master. If you are an exceptionally visual learner, a dry textbook may not do you much good, especially if you are required to learn the content and demonstrate your knowledge (take a test) in a high school or university beginning Physics class. Fortunately, once again No Starch Press has come to your rescue by publishing The Manga Guide to Physics (originally published by TREND-PRO Co., Ltd., Japan in 2006). If you're familiar with any of the other books in this series, you know that the lessons are told within the context of a story depicting the adventures of a hero or heroine, presented in "manga" or Japanese comic format. While this may seem amazingly frivolous to some of you, physics (or databases, electricity, statistics, and so forth) taught within the context of manga can be "distracting" in a good way, and there's no "law of physics" that says education can't also be fun. If the idea of learning while reading manga appeals to you or if you're just curious, this book and series could be the way to go. A couple of things to keep in mind. First of all, this is a beginner's book, so you won't know everything there is to know about physics by the last page. It's just to get you started and to familiarize you with what probably are the topics in a "Physics 101" class at the high school or college level. Also, it's unlikely that an instructor of such a class will actually use this book (though I've been wrong before) to teach said-class. As with the other "Manga Guides" I've reviewed, this book seems best suited as a preparation text for a student who is looking forward to attending such a class (in the same way as he or she might look forward to having their fingernails pulled out by a pair of pliers and then crawling five miles naked over ground glass). If there's something that could give such a student a "jump start" on the coursework and ease the pain of transition, that something would be exceedingly welcome. The book is divided into four basic sections or topics: The Law of Action and Reaction, Force and Motion, Momentum, and Energy. Unlike the prior two Manga books I reviewed (electricity and databases), the story isn't set in a mythical kingdom or a fantasy city, but rather in a "typical" (for a manga adventure) school. The authors have you follow the "adventures" of student and tennis ace Megumi who is a "star athlete" but hopeless when it comes to understanding physics (I'm sure you can see where this is going already). Fortunately Megumi befriends "physics geek" Ryota, who helps her leverage her understanding of sports in order to teach her how to pass her physics class. As is consistent with this series, the book presents the "story" or scenario designed to teach specific principles followed by a more "factually" organized review section. As is consistent with traditional manga or anime, there's plenty of drama to be had, this time in the form of Megumi's rival Sayaka. If you are athletic or used to thinking in terms of sports metaphors, the book's storyline is an added bonus. Megumi's athletic performance, particularly on the tennis court, becomes dependent on her understanding of the physics she's learning for class. She has to think of learning physics in terms of the sports she plays. Also, like some students (or some people in general), when one area of her life has problems like her physics class, Megumi can't concentrate on any other area of her life, even tennis. Although there are two authors listed, Hideo Nitta actually wrote the content while Keita Takatsu provided the artwork. As it turns out, Nitta is well qualified to write a book on physics since he's a professor in the Department of Physics at Tokyo Gakugei University and has published numerous papers and books on topics such as quantum dynamics and radiation physics. I don't know how the dynamics of creating this book happened, but I wonder if Nitta really did write the book creating the characters, dialogue, and situations or if he had help from Takatsu? If the former, I'll have to give special kudos to Nitta for not only knowing his topic (and with his qualifications, it's to be expected) but being a creative fiction and manga writer, too. No, you won't learn about the physics of matter and antimatter and how to write a new start-up routine for a vintage 23rd century warp engine, but you will grasp the foundational basics of physics by the last page of this book. As with the occasional movie, there's a little "treat" waiting for you after the credits, or index in this case, just for one last chuckle (did I mention, this book is funny?). If you find yourself in need of a physics primer and traditional textbooks either send you into fits of anxiety or to the depths of boredom, give The Manga Guide to Physics a whirl. You might learn something and have fun doing it. Oh, just a thought. I wish some writers of science fiction including those creative souls responsible for the most recent Star Trek film would read this book occasionally. For instance, in the film, when Chekov beamed Kirk and Sulu up to the Enterprise while they were in free fall, the law of the conservation of momentum says they should still have been falling when the materialized in the transporter chamber (causing a really big bang!). That said, my son theorizes Chekov used an inertial damper field to suppress this law during transport. Gee, aren't the (fictional) physics of the future wonderful...and convenient?