published by No Starch Press; $19.95 US
The Manga Guide to Calculus
written by Hiroyuki Kojima; art by Shin Togami
As I’ve read more of this series, I’ve come to appreciate better what they’re doing. I’ve found most of them fun ways to brush up on technical subjects. And the more imaginative and developed the framing story is, the more interested I am. A book that says “Girl student needs to study and here’s what she learns” isn’t as involving as, for example, “Princess needs to save the country’s business with a database” or even “Learn physics and beat your snotty classmate.”
Unfortunately, that can be taken too far. With The Manga Guide to Calculus, I found the characters and their situation a lot more interesting and informative than the math they’re supposed to be teaching us. Noriko is an aspiring journalist starting her career in a small branch office of a newspaper. Her new boss notices that she doesn’t have any math in her academic background, so he wants her to learn about functions and correlations to better understand how story elements are related and how to research underlying causality.
This intriguing proposition is never really followed up on. It seems something of a stretch, and at times, the editor’s insistence on turning anything into an excuse to drone on about derivatives and integration becomes quite comical. A trip to get lunch reminds him of the need to calculate curves and graph functions. He gets so distracted he runs the car off the road, and while they wait for help, he launches into a lecture on relative error.
The author’s approach is to focus on why calculus is useful in the real world, which sounds like a refreshing take that gets past memorizing formulas and techniques to emphasize understanding and practical use. However, his intent is rarely reflected on the page. I found the calculus material not particularly well-integrated (heh) into the story — I started resenting the graphs and textbook-style text pages for interrupting my reading about the characters and their struggles to do a good job of journalism. (An attitude I shared with Noriko, who says at one point, “I don’t care about relative difference. I just want some lunch.”)
The text summaries of the concepts at the end of each chapter didn’t have much relation to what was presented in the manga format, assuming a lot of knowledge that wasn’t introduced here. The editor doesn’t demonstrate how calculus is useful in daily life; instead, he uses daily life as calculus examples. That’s a subtle distinction, but a significant one. The former would mean providing, for instance, examples of why one would use a particular derivative to calculate something. The latter means saying something like “let’s think of this road shape as a function” or “let’s pretend these dancers are following waves so we can talk about trigonometric functions”. I was lost when it came to understanding the math, even though I used to teach it to others (as a college tutor).
The author’s introduction brags about using “fundamentally different” teaching methods — perhaps that’s the problem. Often, methods become common because they work. This is a book where, instead of educating readers on calculus by using the art effectively, we’re just shown people talking about math. The author also frequently says “this can approximate that” or “let’s assume this is 0 so we can ignore it” without a lot of background as to why those assumptions are valid, which makes some of the cases resemble hand-waving: “It works because I say so.”
For me, sadly, this book was a failure. (I think I also found a typo that changes the numerical meaning on p35.) I did learn some interesting things, such as why antitrust laws are necessary to prevent monopolistic price manipulation, how bubbles behave in beer, the effects of greenhouse gases, and the economics of supply and demand curves. It’s a very informative book, except for the actual calculus. My favorite lessons were about how to be a good journalist. That’s the book I would rather have read. Preview pages are available at the publisher’s website.
The Manga Guide to Electricity
written by Kazuhiro Fujitaki; art by Matsuda
This installment of the series also didn’t work for me, for similar reasons.
Rereko is from Electopia, where electronics are more advanced and everyone must understand them. However, she is a dunce and so is sent to our world for remedial education. “Since the study of electricity is slower [there], it’ll be perfect for you!” says her instructor. I’m not sure that’s the best beginning, calling our planet backwards when Rereko is the one who seems to know nothing.
Here on earth, Hikaru is a grad student who agrees to tutor her in exchange for her cleaning his messy room, making him lunches, and cooking him dinner. Sheesh. If you objected to the gender roles in the Statistics volume, you definitely want to avoid this one. Then the teacher freaks out when she makes a joke about them seeming like a “married couple”. Whose idea was it to treat her like a maid?
Sadly, his method of instruction is lecturing on concepts, terminology, and equations, without much involvement of daily life examples. This volume doesn’t take full advantage of the manga format, serving instead as merely an illustrated text where the images don’t add much. Making the student such a ditz was a poor choice, since it means she can add little to the discussion, and he’s got no personality beyond “messy student geek”.
That said, I did learn a lot, including how to make various kinds of batteries. The information is clearly presented, but it’s dry and not as entertaining as some of the other volumes in the series. Preview pages are available at the publisher’s website.
(Complimentary copies for this review were provided by the publisher.)