by Kenji Ishikawa, Kiyoshi Kawabata, Yutaka Hiiragi
published by No Starch Press; $19.95 US
The Manga Guide to the Universe follows the usual pattern — lots of pages of comics with cute girls learning science, backed up by text material that explains the concepts covered in more depth. This volume includes a bit more plot than is typical, a pleasant change. In the framing device, three schoolgirls (the over-dramatic Kanna, the cynical Yamane, and the U.S. exchange student Gloria, who’s in love with Japanese culture) must put on a play for the arts festival, or their drama club will be dissolved. Given their lack of numbers, they decide on the folktale “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”, about a daughter of the moon.
That somehow leads into the girls discussing science fiction stories and outer space, which requires them to learn more about the universe in order to write a modernized version of the fairy tale for their play. Conveniently, Kanna’s brother Kanta is an astronomy student, who introduces them to a professor who can help them answer such questions as:
- Does the sun revolve around the earth?
- How far away is the moon?
- What are conditions like on the planets and the sun?
- How was the moon formed?
- What is the Milky Way galaxy?
- How did the universe form? (The Big Bang theory)
- Do aliens exist?
- What is the edge of the universe like?
- What is dark matter?
The art is attractively stylized in ways that will appeal to readers brought in by the “manga” title. There are exaggerated reactions, speed lines, zip-a-tone shading, chibi versions populating thought balloons … all the conventions. At times, some of the panels looked pixelated to me, as though they’d been poorly reproduced or resized to fit the space, but even that fit the zany energy of the comic, zooming around from concept to concept rapidly. The more familiar you are with manga, the more in-jokes you’ll get, as when (for no reason) Kanna is suddenly shown in an octopus suit, embracing Gloria. (Tentacles!)
The text sections are more wide-ranging than in previous books, covering all kinds of subjects beyond the promised astronomy, including a really interesting section on cosmic myths and measurements from different ancient regions and religions. I was also surprised to see a section labeled “top five mysteries of the galaxy that have not yet been explained” — it’s not often a book on an academic subject is willing to point out what’s not (yet) known.
The writers take a more philosophical approach than is typical for many science books, with intriguing digressions on who should really be credited for particular advances, and some mind-blowing concepts like “no matter what scale we use to view the universe, there is no place in it that is ever at rest. Therefore, we cannot indicate a specific point in space.”
There’s a nice historical background in this volume, with various figures — including Copernicus, Galileo, and Johannes Kepler — being mentioned as the kids explore what cosmological knowledge was discovered when. There are also math and geometry sections, used to explain distance and size measurements. I found the underlying theme dealing with how popular theories change and the use of the scientific method to continually improve our knowledge of the universe particularly enlightening. The book ends with eight pages of color photographs of planets, galaxies, and space exploration.
The publisher’s website has a preview download of the first chapter. If you buy the print book from them directly at that link, you’ll get a free PDF ebook copy, or you can buy just the ebook version (at what seems to me a rather high price, $15.95 US). (The publisher provided a review copy.)