If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many pages of scientific prose is a science comic worth? Or, for that matter, how many words in a blog post?
Science comics took the spotlight last week during one of the scores of sessions at Science Online 2013 in Raleigh, N.C. — and one of the takeaways was that illustrators and cartoonists are serious about the science they're depicting. Heck, many of them are trained scientists as well as gifted artists. Take MinutePhysics' Henry Reich, for example: He earned degrees in physics and math, but found himself drawn to film and video. Now he encapsulates complex concepts in physics (such as the quest for the Higgs boson) in YouTube videos that last just a bit more than a minute.
His latest MinutePhysics offering wraps up more than two dozen science websites and video channels worth checking out, including way-cool science comics such as xkcd and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. You'll want to scan the whole list, but you won't want to stop there. It's a good thing the weekend is coming up, because here are another eight science comics to while away the hours with:
Bird and Moon:Rosemary Mosco is a "nature lover with a passion for science communication" — and a flair for cute, colorful graphics that are thoughtful as well. Have you always wondered how to tell a dolphin from a porpoise? Check out the "Animal Cheat Sheet."
Walkabout Em: Emily Coren has degrees in ecology and evolutionary biology as well as science illustration. Her illustrations don't joke around — instead, they present creatures and concepts with a pleasing style.
2D Goggles: Melina Sydney Padua presents "The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage," a quirky webcomic interspersed with observations about the history of the Difference Engine and other geeky subjects.
Striking the right balance between scientific plausibility and dramatic flair is one of the keys to a successful superhero movie, says James Kakalios, who teaches physics at the University of Minnesota and also serves as a consultant for movies such as "The Amazing Spider-Man."
"Hollywood creators appreciate our contributions, for they realize that when the audience is questioning the physics of what they are watching or the authenticity of the laboratory set, that's a moment when they are not paying attention to the story," he wrote in a commentary we published on msnbc.com earlier today.
Here's another angle related to science and technology: Superheroes get extra points on the fan scale if they handle high-tech gadgetry like the EMP Blaster and flying Bat vehicle featured in "The Dark Knight Rises." (We can gloss over the fact that electromagnetic pulses wouldn't be as well-behaved as they appear to be in the movie, or that the kind of propeller-driven Bat shown in the movie is pretty much aerodynamically impossible. And don't get me started on Wayne Enterprises' "clean-energy" fusion reactor.)
Over the past four years, the National Academy of Sciences' Science and Entertainment Exchange has been bringing scientists together with screenwriters, producers and other folks in the entertainment industry to make movies and TV shows more plausible on scientific grounds, if not 100 percent accurate.
Some gaffes slip through — ranging from the constellations in "Titanic" to the distance calculations in "Prometheus" — but the prime directive is to make a connection between real-life science and movie magic. The scientists probably derive more benefit than the filmmakers, because they can use those movies and TV shows as teachable moments. Even the gaffes provide grist for the mental mill.
In an email exchange, Kakalios delved into some of the issues he deals with as an adviser on superhero physics. Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:
Cosmic Log: Do you find that the spate of superhero movies is sparking scientific studies like the recent one about Batman's cape? Are people more questioning of superpower science because they're seeing more such movies, or have they become inured to the fantasy? Can scientific believability make the difference between a good superhero movie and a bad one?
James Kakalios: "There certainly have been a lot of superhero movies in the past few years — a Golden Age for Geeks!
"The studios have a vested interest in making sure that the general public is very familiar with these heroes — which opens the door for scientists to leverage this interest and promote real science. David Marshall's article is a good example of using the interest in the new 'Dark Knight Rises' film as a platform to discuss classical mechanics, which typically will not make it into the mainstream press. I also liked the argument from a few years ago which suggested that Superman's powers can be accounted for by a single miracle exception from the laws of nature, involving an ability to manipulate inertia.
"Interestingly enough, Hollywood has been coming to scientists more and more, and early in the scriptwriting process. They will sometimes use the 'real' science behind the characters as the basis for story lines. The goal is not to make the films 100 percent scientifically accurate, which is beside the point of a fantasy film, but to make it accurate enough that the audience is willing to maintain their suspension of disbelief and become engaged in the story."
University of Minnesota physicist Jim Kakalios talks about the "Decay Rate Algorithm."
Q: You describe the process of translating real science into a "Decay Rate Algorithm" for the latest Spider-Man movie. Are there other aspects of "The Amazing Spider-Man" that you had a hand in enhancing, or at least steering clear of some of the things that strain plausibility?
"Materials scientists would love to be able to mass-produce such webbing, for then we would be able to make lightweight clothing that is stronger than Kevlar. In the past, scientists have crossed a spider's web-making genes with goats, and have raised goats that synthesize spider's silk in their milk. A real-life example of cross-species genetics!"
Q: Are there typical challenges to scientific believability that are associated with specific characters? What would be Spider-Man's scientific Kryptonite?
A: "Spider-Man would have to worry about Teflon surfaces — they would be non-stick for him as well! Geckos cling to walls through a weak electrostatic force called the Van der Waals attraction. using millions of microscopic fibers in their toes (called setae). Fluctuating charges in these fibers induce oppositely charged fluctuations in the wall. As opposites attract, the fiber is pulled towards the wall. The closer to the wall, the better — which is why the fiber is so small, in order to enhance its surface area-to-volume ratio. The force is very weak, which is why there are millions of fibers to provide sufficient force to hold the gecko up.
"But if the molecules in the walls are such that they resist inducing such fluctuating charges, then the force is inhibited. While artificial gecko tape does stick to Teflon, the van der Waals force is weaker than for other surfaces, and may not be strong enough to hold Spidey up. Whether this is the case or not, it is a great opportunity to discuss real, cutting-edge research in the context of a superhero movie!"
Q: Could you touch on any superpower-like technologies that you've come across in the most recent round of superhero movies?
A: "The first thing I can think of is Captain America's shield, which is a unique alloy of steel and ... Vibranium! The steel gives it rigidity and strength, and the Vibranium is a made-up mineral in Marvel comics. Found in the African nation of Wakanda, it is extraterrestial in origin, and absorbs all vibrations!
"That makes it the ultimate shock absorber, capable of deflecting even a blow from Thor's hammer, as seen in this summer's 'Avengers' film. The clang we hear when Cap bounces his shield off an opponent thus answers an age-old question in science: What would it sound like if you struck an object which absorbs all vibrations?"
For more insights into superhero science, check out Kakalios' book, "The Physics of Superheroes" — and use your powerful vision to take in the videos and Web links below:
Asap Science delves into the science of "The Amazing Spider-Man."
The plot lines may sound sappy to grown-ups. Usually they involve a cute schoolgirl or schoolboy who's challenged by an equally cute teacher to master a seemingly impenetrable subject. But Bill Pollock, the founder and president of No Starch Press, says the books get the job done, especially for students who are at a crucial age for math and science education.
"We're not out to publish the best manga ever," Pollock told me. "The manga is a vehicle."
Educational comics are nothing new, of course: Classics Illustrated, for example, was delivering comic-book versions of English lit and science class back in the '50s. (I still get the heebie-jeebies when I recall the Classics Illustrated version of "Jane Eyre" that sat in the comic-book box at Grandma's house.) More recently, cartoonist Larry Gonick has been using the comic-book format to explain subjects ranging from chemistry to physics to sex. This year, one of the items on my holiday book list is "Feynman," a graphic-novel biography of the bongo-playing physicist.
But manga books come from a different cultural tradition — the same tradition that spawned Pokemon, Hello Kitty and other Japanese imports that American kids have grown up with. In Japan, there's a manga subgenre ("gakushu manga") that is completely focused on education. These books, which range around 200 pages in length, are the ones that have been adapted into English-language "manga guides."
Japanese researchers have reported that manga books can deliver information in a shorter time and make a stronger impression than conventional textbooks. "Manga's textual hybridity is utilized to promote the readers' effective learning, as verbal and iconographic tests place multiple layers of information in context and project a focused content," Satsuki Murakami and Mio Bryce wrote in the International Journal of the Humanities.
Masaharu Takemura, Kikuyaro, Office Sawa
Panels from "The Manga Guide to Biochemistry" delve into ribosomes and their role in the cell.
"I look at it as a lecture in a book," Pollock said. "It's as if you're in there learning together with this cartoon character."
The lecture can be tough sledding at times. There's no easy way to have a cartoon character utter dialogue like this: "A Lineweaver-Burk reciprocal plot is created by ... finding reciprocals for all the numeric values on the horizontal and vertical axes!" But Pollock says he's seen the manga technique work, particularly for teenage girls, who tend to lag behind teenage boys when it comes to interest in math and science.
"I've always liked the idea of exposing people to something exciting, and higher math is exciting," he said.
In the past few days, there's been a debate percolating over how the genders are portrayed in science education — as seen, for example, in the marketing of "science kits for girls" that focus on perfumery, cosmetics and spa care. Some have raised concerns about manga as well, in part because of the short skirts and ditzy demeanor sometimes exhibited by the female characters. (To be fair, manga boys can be just as ditzy as the girls.)
"Some people think manga is sexist," Pollock said. "The reality is, I've had multiple parents come to me and tell me that their daughters love the books and now they're getting into math and science. ... We may look at things one way as adults — but for kids, it totally works."
STEM education — that is, education in science, technology, engineering and math — has been a hot topic lately. What totally works for you? Do comic books fit into the equation? Whether you're a student or a teacher, a parent or just an interested grown-up, feel free to weigh in with your comics ... er, comments ... below.