Science – A Discovery in Comics

By Margreet de Heer with Yiri T. Kohl (NBM)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-750-8

There’s no use denying it: Annual Gift-Giving Season isn‘t far off and it’s never too early to think of the ideal item for that troublesome family/friend unit. So here’s something scientifically approved and tested to fit the bill for any disputative colleague fed up with socks, pants, pen-sets or One Direction action figures…

It has long been a truism of the creative arts that the most effective, efficient and economical method of instruction and informational training has been the comic strip.

Advertising mavens have always exploited the subversive impact of well-chosen words wedded to evocative pictures, and public information materials frequently use sequential narrative to get hard messages over quickly and simply.

Additionally, since World War II, carefully crafted strips have been constantly used as training materials in every aspect of adult life from school careers advice to various branches of military service – utilising the talents of comics giants as varied as Milton Caniff, Will Eisner (who spent decades producing reams of comic manuals for the US army and other government departments), Kurt Schaffenberger and Neil Adams.

These days the educational value and merit of comics is a given.

Larry Gonick in particular has been using the strip medium to stuff learning and entertainment in equal amounts into the weary brains of jaded students with such tomes as The Cartoon History of the Universe, The Cartoon History of the United States and The Cartoon Guide to… series (Computers, Non-Communication, Physics, Statistics, the Environment, Genetics, Sex and more).

Japan employs vast quantities of manga text books in its schools and universities and has even released government reports and business prospectuses as comic books to get around the ingrained apathy towards reading large dreary volumes of public information.

So do we, and so do the Americans.

Here Margreet de Heer and husband Yuri again employ the medium to sublimely and elegantly tackle another all-consuming preoccupation and noble creation of the mind of Man, following their previous endeavours elucidatory endeavours…

She was born in 1972 into a family of theologians and, despite some rebellious teen forays to the wild side of life, studied Theology for 9 years at the University of Amsterdam. After graduating in 1999 she decided to become a cartoonist – and did – but also worked at the wonderful comics and cool stuff emporium/cultural icon Lambiek in Amsterdam.

Whilst there she collaborated with industry expert Kees Kousemaker on a history of Dutch comics before becoming a full-time artist in 2005, with commissions in publications as varied as Yes, Zij aan Zij, Viva Mama, Flo’, Jippo, Farfelu and NRC.Next.

In 2007 she began a series of cartoon philosophical reports for the newspaper Trouw, which prompted a perspicacious publisher to commission a complete book on this most ancient of topics. Filosofie in Beeld was released in 2010 and translated into English by NBM as Philosophy – a Discovery in Comics.

An inveterate questioner, she then turned her thoughts and pens to Religie in Beeld – which I’m assuming is “Religion in Comic Pictures” as I don’t think it’s been translated into English yet – before logically moving on to the third leg of the fabled Pillars of Wisdom.

Science – A Discovery in Comics is one more superb full-colour strip foundation course packed with information and gentle humour. Dissecting and disseminating the essence and fundamentals of a big, big subject in a subversively calm and accessible way, de Heer crafts her hypotheses and findings with the instruments of a gifted writer and synthesist and a master’s grasp of the medium.

This supremely engaging discourse opens with a searching ‘Prologue’ pointing out the core contradictions of supposedly unambiguous scientific thought before a few working definitions lead to a discussion of ‘What is Science?’ before the lectures begin with the core concept ‘The Beginning of Modern Western Science’.

This examination of the astounding achievements – and now obsolete observations – of Ancient Greece, paying particular attention to ‘Thales of Miletus’, ‘Anaximander’, ‘Pythagoras’, ‘Archimedes’ and ‘Euclid’ then elegantly diverts into a discourse on Mathematics, divided into ‘History of Math’ concentrating upon ‘Four Fascinating Mathematical Phenomena: Pi, Infinity, The Golden Ratio and Zero’.

Thos sagacious Greeks are represented here by ‘Aristotle’ who laid the foundations of ‘The Scientific Method’

Science in the Middle Ages is covered ‘…At a Glance’ and through ‘The Medieval Worldview’, after which the subject switches to Chemistry, complete with a ‘History of Chemistry’, a quirky look at ‘the Periodic Table’ and some surprising things you didn’t know about famous scientists – and many who should be but aren’t.

A summary of where we’re at leads into the revelatory Mrs. Scientist which details just a few of the brilliant female thinkers and doers sidelined and short-changed by mainstream history before the journey resumes with a visit to The Renaissance paying particular attention to ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’.

Progressing to The Scientific Revolution where ‘New Ideas’ at last supplanted the accepted wisdom of the ‘Ideas of Aristotle’, the focus is on ‘Galileo Galilei’ and the destructive, increasingly toxic ‘Relationship Between Science and Religion’

The section on Astronomy opens with ‘History of Astronomy’ and a glimpse at ‘Space’ after which Newton gets his own chapter, culminating in a brilliant explanation of ‘Newton’s Laws’ before the spotlight falls on Physics

Following the preliminary and compulsory ‘History of Physics’, a short treatise on ‘Three Sub-areas of Physics: Electricity, Thermodynamics and Motion’ as visually verified in ‘Classical Mechanics’ takes us to The Nineteenth Century – Age of Discoveries with a potted history of ‘Charles Darwin’ evolving into the furore surrounding ‘Natural Theology’ and a section on the new discipline of Biology

‘History of Biology’, naturally results in a thorough examination of ‘Genetics’ and a personal moment for Margreet and Yuri as they take advantage of a very modern facility in ‘The Chromosome Chronicles’.

Geology surfaces next with ‘History of Geology’, revealing and revisiting the protracted debate over ‘The Age of the Earth’, ‘History of the Earth’ and ‘History of Man’.

Einstein of course, rates a section to himself, and ‘Albert Einstein’, ‘The Theory of Relativity’ and ‘Funny Facts’ happily lead to the contentious Quantum Theory,

This doctrine divided theoreticians for most of the 20th century – as seen in ‘History of Quantum Theory’ – examining the confounding paradox of ‘Wave and/or Particle’, ‘The Classical Worldview’ versus ‘The Quantum Worldview’ and asks ‘Next Stop: a Theory of Everything?’

And because proper science is about sharing knowledge, this scintillating speculation concludes with ‘Where are we Heading? – Science of the Future’, offering a quick survey of current affairs and prospective avenues of exploration…

This pictorial peroration also includes a handy page of recommendations of other books, films and graphic novels to check out, such as Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Everything and Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis, Christos H. Papadimitriou, Alecos Papadatos and Anna di Donna.

This is a truly sharp and witty book, which marvellously reduces centuries of contentious pondering, violent discussion and high-altitude academic acrimony to an enthralling, utterly accessible experience any smart kid or keen elder would be happy to experience.

Clear, concise, appropriately challenging and informatively funny, Science – A Discovery in Comics is a wonder of unpretentious, exuberant graphic craft and a timeless book we can all enjoy.

© @2012 Uitgeverij Meinema, Zoetermeer, TheNetherlands. English translation © 2013 Margreet de Heer.
Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Perfect for anybody with a brain and a question… 9/10