Sunday, July 22, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #203: The Cartoon Guide to Physics by Larry Gonick and Art Huffman

If you had asked me "is physics more interesting than history?," I'd probably have to think about it. Both are fascinating in their own ways, full of convoluted intricate stuff that's fun to learn about or think through. It wouldn't be obvious at all.

So when I saw that Larry Gonick, author of multiple volumes of The Cartoon History of the Universe (and its follow-up, ...of the Modern World) had a book called The Cartoon Guide to Physics, created with physics teacher Art Huffman, I thought that was a book for me.

(And then it sat on my shelf for at least a decade, because that's what always happens.)

I finally read it recently, and it reminded me of something I learned back when I worked in publishing: a truism that I wanted not to be true but, eventually, accepted that definitely was.

The truism is this: Every equation in a book reduces its potential audience by half.

The Cartoon Guide to Physics has eight equations in the first chapter alone.

So this is a book primarily for people seriously interested in learning physics -- not learning about physics, or science in general, or general knowledge. It's for people who want to start with F=ma, understand what that means, and go on from there. My guess is that it's primarily used on the highschool level, and I could see it being a lot of fun for students who are learning this stuff anyway -- it's definitely more interesting and dynamic than a textbook.

But it's much less interesting and dynamic than, say, a random graphic novel, which is what it might be shelved next to. So if you pick up a Gonick Cartoon Guide book, take a look inside it -- they can vary a lot.

This one is divided into two large sections -- the first covers Mechanics, with the laws of motion, starting with speed and acceleration and moving on to cover orbits, momentum, gravity, inertia, collisions, and rotation (and several dozen equations). The second half of the book is Electricity and Magnetism, which has slightly fewer equations but just as many numbers and technical details.

I read this book casually, which really isn't the point. You should read each page carefully, think through the equations and implications, and only move on once it all makes sense to you. (I'm going to pretend that I already knew all of this stuff, and that's why I read it straight through. Yeah. That's the ticket.)

Gonick draws this is in a very loose, expressive style, and his main characters this time are a young woman (who is unnamed as far as I could see) and a Gonick-esque mustachioed man called Ringo. Like his other books, it's not really comics -- there are drawings on the page, but there's also a lot of words, mostly arranged in block around them, and the drawings only rarely form a sequence of action. But it's a first cousin of comics, and could be of interest to comics people for that reason. But the primary audience, again, is people trying to seriously learn physics, either as part of a regular course of study or just for themselves.

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