Book Review: The Manga Guide to Physics

Having read and enjoyed nearly all of the entries in the Manga Guide series by Ohmsha/No Starch Press, I’ve been going back to read those ones I missed the first time around. The Manga Guide to Physics is pretty much what it sounds like, covering what most people think of when they hear the word physics: mechanics, which is the physics of motion, force, and energy. Other areas of physics, like electricity, thermodynamics, and quantum mechanics, are left to future titles.

The book covers its material in four chapters: Law of Action and Reaction, Force and Motion, Momentum, and Energy. The subject matter is explained via a series of private tutoring sessions between the two main characters, high school students Megumi and Ryota. In the prologue, Megumi, an all-star athlete, has a bad day, losing a tennis match to her arch-rival while she is distracted by thoughts of her poor test performance in physics class. She enlists Ryota, the star science student of the school, to get her back on track academically. It may even turn out that a better understanding of physics could improve her game.

The storyline is simple but good, and the tennis angle provides a good vehicle for illustrating and applying physical concepts. Many people think physics is just a series of formulae, but a mathematical formula is just one way of expressing the behaviour of, and relationships between, objects in the physical world. Visual and graphical representations are also very effective ways of conveying concepts in physics, and The Manga Guide to Physics expertly applies these approaches.

Although the author, Professor Nitta of Tokyo Gakugei University, does not shy away from the relevant equations, even including some (completely optional) calculus-based sections, this book’s focus is firmly centred on conceptual understanding rather than calculation. Typical of this series, the main ideas are introduced via the story, which is illustrated in graphic novel form, while deeper explanations are left to a few pages of text at the end of each chapter. However, while some of the other books in the series include end of chapter practice questions (Manga Guides to Calculus, Molecular Biology, and Statistics, for example), the text-heavy pages in Physics are reserved for derivations and more complicated calculations.

This book does an excellent job of explaining these concepts, however, and showing where the equations come from, even if it doesn’t provide the reader with practice using those equations. Unusually, Nitta starts out with forces, specifically, Newton’s Third Law, discussing details of motion (velocity, acceleration, displacement) later. This approach works well, because it allows the first chapter to be qualitative, rather than jumping straight into the math.

He only touches briefly on force diagrams, but gets the main idea of action-reaction pairs across via thought experiments and Socratic questioning. The use of both equations and different types of motion graphs in the next chapter are explained well through examples in the main body, and would be well-paired with a more traditional textbook’s practice questions. Momentum and energy are also well done, explained first qualitatively, then with numbers.

The Manga Guide to Physics has the potential to be a great resource for the independently-minded student, and its non-traditional topic sequence is an effective alternative to the usual way of doing things. The series’ book on calculus also takes an uncommon, but much superior approach to its topic that I found most helpful in refreshing my memory, and this alternative approach to the physics may also be just the ticket for some students. Sound pedagogy, a fun story, and the natural pairing of a visual medium with a visual topic make for another home run from this consistently strong series.

(No Starch Press, 2009)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2011) The Sleeping Hedgehog

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