The Manga Guide to the Universe by Kenji Ishikawa, Kiyoshi Kawabata, and Verte Corp.

I’m still getting back up to speed with the blog, as well as the huge backlog of stuff I’ve read during the past few months when I was too busy to blog. Thus, I am semi-officially proclaiming this Book Review Week. I’ll post one review a day of books I was sent by publishers looking for a mention on the blog.

We’ll start off with The Manga Guide to the Universe, which is from the same organization that brought us The Manga Guide to Relativity. This one is, as the title suggests, a cartoon introduction to astronomy.

As is standard for the Manga Guide series, this has a framing story involving high school kids, with informative material about science hung onto that. In this case, it’s about Kanna and Yamane, two girls who need to put on a play for their school, with the assistance of Gloria, a Japan-obsessed American exchange student. They decide to do a version of the story of Kaguya-hime. Since the title character turns out to be from the Moon, they decide they need to learn more about the universe, which they do, with the aid of Kanna’s older brother Kanta, and one of his astronomy professors.

As you can tell, this isn’t as gleefully demented as the relativity book. It does involve a fair bit of slapstick, though, as the play expands to eventually encompass more and more of astronomy, also roping in a literature teacher.

Science-wise, this is a very compact survey of astronomy, starting with the ancient Greeks Eratosthenes and Aristarchus, who worked out that the Earth is round and orbits the sun, all the way up through the recent discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe by this year’s Nobel laureates in physics. This is a huge amount of material, and as a result it moves very fast. Also, this book features much more plain text than the relativity volume, with detailed explanations not only at the end of each section, but often within them as well.

I’m less familiar with astronomy than physics, having no formal education in the subject, so I can’t say too much about the accuracy– I didn’t notice any problems, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s flawless. There were some tidbits in here that I hadn’t heard before (some of which I’m going to research further for use in this winter’s class on timekeeping), and while the drama-club conceit wears kind of thin, the presentation is generally engaging and enjoyable.

The one issue I had with the manga presentation is that I often had trouble telling the characters apart– two of the girls are drawn with light-colored hair, they all have eyes the size of telescope mirrors, and they frequently go into that ultra-stylized mode that Japanese comics use to indicate extreme emotion, at which point you can’t tell who’s who at all. This was probably aggravated by the fact that I was reading this spread out over a couple of months, and thus had to remind myself who the characters were every time I picked it up. If you read it all at once (or are more experienced with the conventions of Japanese comics than I am), this might not be a problem.

Anyway, this is pretty much exactly what you want from a comic-book introduction to astronomy: reasonably comprehensive, entertaining, and fairly light. If you’d like to pick up a basic idea of the subject, but find the thought of reading a textbook daunting or depressing, this might be just the ticket.