Right around the time I sent in the manuscript for my own book explaining relativity to Emmy, I got an email offering me a review copy of The Manga Guide to Relativity, part of a series of English translations of Japanese comic books explaining complicated concepts in a friendly way. That was clearly too good a wind-down read to pass up.

Like other books in the series, this sets up a manga-type plot that just happens to require introducing relativity. In this case, on the last day of school at Taigai Academy, headmaster Rase Iyaga makes a surprise announcement: that he will throw a dart at the spinning Wheel of Destiny to determine what subject they will be forced to study over their vacation. When Relativity is the topic, the student body is outraged, as is Vice Principal Koromaru, who happens to be a dog. After challenging Iyaga’s decision, student body president Ruka Minagi agrees to take the hit for the school: he will learn relativity over the summer, with the help of the young and attractive (and ambitious) physics teacher Alisa Uraga. And while he does, there are occasional interruptions by a mysterious young woman who seems to be inventing excuses to break into his lectures…

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So, anyway, from that description, you can tell that while we’re not in go-away-Japanese-id-you-are-scary territory, we’re not exactly working in one of the more realistic corners of the manga cosmos.

The book intersperses plain-text descriptions of relativity (including equations) with chapters of slightly silly manga lectures. Both tracks follow a fairly traditional path into the subject: explaining classical ideas of motion, then introducing the problem of the aether, then building up relativity from the constancy of the speed of light, and so on. It does include a little discussion of general relativity, though this is obviously very qualitative. The manga bits involve lots of slapstick– weird Power Ranger robots popping up and kicking or punching each other, people stuffed into exploding rockets, etc.– but the basic frame is that each chapter is a lecture by Miss Uraga.

The plain-text sections are very brief, but scientifically solid. They don’t exactly derive anything, but there’s enough discussion of how things work that you can get the basic picture, and it introduces the equations needed to solve some simple problems. I wouldn’t expect anybody to actually learn relativity from this, but it could serve as an entertaining supplement to a more comprehensive book, or just a way to get people who enjoy manga to think positive thoughts about the subject.

In terms of the presentation, the art is presented in left-to-right form; I’m not certain how much rearranging this entailed, as I obviously don’t have the Japanese original. I suspect this is a wise tactical decision, keeping the number of unusual aspects to a minimum; if you’re a manga purist, that might be a mark against it. There are a few small Japanese cultural references that probably play better in the original, but there’s enough context provided that you can get the basic idea, even if some of the mythic resonance is lost. The framing story is entertainingly bizarre to the end.

If you find yourself with a pressing need to learn a little bit about relativity– say, because you’re learning physics from a teacher who isn’t quite as engaging as Miss Uraga– this is a fun and painless way to get some idea of how the theory works. It’s also fairly entertaining if you already know something about the subject– the resolution of the framing plot is silly enough to be worth reading in the bookstore.

Comments

  1. #1 Chakat Firepaw
    June 14, 2011

    In terms of the presentation, the art is presented in left-to-right form; I’m not certain how much rearranging this entailed, as I obviously don’t have the Japanese original.

    Most likely it required very little rearranging: The most common way to do that is to simply flip the art.

    Do they ever show anyone driving? If they are driving left-hand drive cars on the right side of the road, the art was flipped.

    How about an unusually large number of people being left-handed?

  2. #2 Tyler
    June 14, 2011

    Thanks for the review, Chad!

    Ohmsha, the original Japanese publisher, actually printed these books left-to-light in the original editions, so no characters or panels have been flipped or rearranged in comic sections of the English editions. We do take some liberties with jokes and sound effects though!

  3. #3 Kate Nepveu
    June 14, 2011

    Tyler, do you know why they were published L-to-R in Japan?

  4. #4 Tyler
    June 15, 2011

    Ohmsha has a long history as a scientific and technical publisher (that is, not a manga house), and I’ve been told L-to-R is not rare for science books in Japan.

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