Manga And Relativity - Otaku Only Or Science For Everyone?
    By Hank Campbell | July 15th 2011 01:57 PM | 11 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    The National Science Foundation and various other government groups with more funding than knowledge of the public wastes billions of dollars on STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) outreach, using the strange mentality that smart kids who might otherwise become veterinarians or game designers need to become scientists and engineers or America will collapse.

    In reality, we produce far more Ph.D.s than can be employed so this fetish with higher education is more like inventing a problem so that government can solve it.    The generation of scientists in America today that are PIs and professors grew up in an era where there were no unlimited student loans or expensive outreach programs and America produces almost 32 percent of the world's science.   Not too shabby.

    Scientists are inspired by nature and the world around them.  They are curious.  Outreach does not create curiosity.  What outreach can do, and it doesn't take any government money, is spark an interest in science.  It needn't be clever, it needn't have cartoon characters - but it doesn't hurt.

    It also doesn't hurt to be topical.  It used to be that Japan took everything from the rest of the world but in the last two decades they have taken to exporting culture as well.  I have long contended that Pokemon was payback for Hiroshima, though I can't prove it.   If you were new to the Japanese comic genre and read something like "Crying Freeman", you were likely blown away by the masterful storytelling.  These were not kid comics, they just looked it.

    Crying Freeman.  A comic book, but definitely not for kids.

    And more modern manga slip in some science as well.  I recently got a chance to read The Manga Guide To Relativity by Hideo Nitta, professor in the Department of Physics at Tokyo Gakugei University, Masafumi Yamamoto, PhD in Applied Physics from the Graduate School of Engineering at Hokkaido University, and Keita Takatsu.  Relativity is not trivial so I was intrigued at how they might be able to pull it off without sacrificing the science.

    There are some stock elements that the Western world will have to adjust to, a hot, young teacher whose face contorts in explosive ways at random moments, anthropomorphic talking pets, androgyny (the main character has to learn physics or be the vaguely weird principal's "personal assistant" for a year - yikes!), but for the most part it is a story about romance and science.  Really, that's what all great stories are.

    You did not learn physics from a teacher in a bikini?  Now you can!

    I used Otaku in the title because that is a colloquial way to refer to highly serious fans and that was what I wondered - was this a gimmick that would be bought by fans of manga but not regular kids who would be attracted by the story?  Off to a manga convention in Sacramento I search of answers.  

    I showed the book to people and everyone thought it was clever - but no one had bought it nor did I see it for sale, which seems like a shame.  I did get a picture of Bloggy, drawn manga-style.

    Bloggy the Science 2.0 mascot as drawn by Melissa McCommon.(1)

    It's good science but how is it not manga, you may be asking?  It is not right to left.  In many cases they are now leaving the manga in the original right to left format - as the popularity has grown, some manga artists will not allow their art to be flipped to cater to decadent western tastes but there is also a likely practical aspect - it's cheaper to leave it alone.  I don't know if this was done right to left in original form.

    Regardless, having brought back various 'real' manga from Japan on trips I took I never noticed my kids having any trouble in its original form and the storytelling was good enough they 'got' it without being able to read the language.

    However, on the science aspects it is as good as you can get.  The barometer will be young people and, while my data is not comprehensive (a set of one) my daughter read this book and when I asked her about it, she said the story was good and was intrigued to find that general relativity was special and special relativity was general.    That's as good an endorsement as you can get.


    (1) He sat patiently for an hour at the Sacramento comic/anime/manga/toy convention getting his face immortalized 

    but as a bonus got his picture taken with a stormtrooper.  Daughter Paige(left) did not ask, "Aren't you a little short to be a stormtrooper?" though clearly that would have been justified


    Hank, I'm curious how the US "wastes billions of dollars on STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) outreach".  Outreach is poorly funded, and even these days, a billion is a decent chunk of change.  If you ballpark NASA at $20B/yr with a uniquely high mandate that 1% goes to outreach, add in NSF at $2B (outreach requirements unknown), and the DOE budget at $27B ($5B of that for science), I can't see even 'billion', much less plural billions.

    Where are the billions?  And the obligatory follow-up, as a dedicated outreach person: how can I get some?


    You'll have to be a non-profit.  The biggest mistake I made was not making this a non-profit.  I use the term 'wastes' because (a) it is unnecessary and (b) there is no metric for success and every company in the world engaged in marketing can tell you how their advertising is spent and what is accomplished, but not the government.  They should be funding science studies, not outreach.   No one even knows what 'outreach' means if you look at the programs they fund.

    At current count, we have 15 federal departments (with 72 sub-agencies) and 12 independent agencies involved in 'science' and all of them claim to do STEM outreach.   The NSF alone funded 28 STEM education programs totaling $1.16 billion, compiled from the Academic Competitiveness Council  (ACC) report on STEM programs, including $486 million for college students and $334 million for grad students.  STEM outreach for grad students?  Really?

    I agree with the NPO bit.  But you seem to be confusing STEM education with STEM outreach.  One is education, one is marketing.  I don't think NSF spent $1.16B of their $2B budget on STEM outreach, I'd need some accurate citation to believe they spend 50% of their entire budget that way.

    Also, private companies have no idea what their advertising accomplishes, that's the dark secret of marketing.  If you have an inside track that lets you tell what the advertising ROI is, that'd revolutionize the field.

    I can't see a difference.   This is not part of the school system or any educational curriculum so 'education' and 'outreach' are different how?   "Ethics Education in Science&Engineering (EESE)" is STEM, to the NSF, but is that really education?   Not to me.  So if they don't know what STEM is, they probably should not be funding it.  I can't figure out what Discovery Research K-12 is but apparently neither can they.  It still gets $118 million and it's neither education nor outreach but NSF trumps it up as both.

    Keep in mind, the NSF is just one body claiming to be STEM ____ (insert whatever you want there).   Yet we have no indication at all any more scientists or engineers or mathematicians are being created.    A book like these folks wrote is more likely to inspire a young person than "Enhancing the Mathematical Sciences Workforce of the 21st Century" at a cost of $15 million.
    Ah, nothing like a debate to liven up a Friday!  The 'Discovery Research K-12' isn't STEM outreach at all.  It's about teacher training and curriculum development: "how to improve preK-12 STEM learning and teaching and then develop, implement, and study effects of innovative educational resources, models, or technologies."

    If you mix everything connected to STEM education, sure, you can hit 'billions', but outreach is pretty specific.  Outreach is marketing.  STEM outreach is marketing STEM or making people aware of STEM programs.  Everything else-- actual teaching, developing and studying how to teach, producing materials for teaching, that's not _outreach_.

    STEM is a subject.  Science Technology Engineering and Math.  There's STEM education, STEM outreach, and actual work in the fields covered by STEM.  Outreach is a specific activity that you rightfully call marketing.  Arguing anything using the STEM acronym is outreach is like saying all books are contained in the dictionary.

    If you mix everything connected to STEM education, sure, you can hit 'billions', but outreach is pretty specific.
    The NSF mixes them all to together as STEM outreach.   Generally, the NSF is not in that business at all - it is supposed to fund transformative research - so arguing over over whether they are justly criticized for wasting $1.16 billion or only $900 million is pointless when they shouldn't be spending any money at all on things they have no clue about, like how to create or educate scientists and engineers.  It's another shocking waste of resources in a long line of shocking wastes.
    "Some manga artists will not allow their art to be flipped to cater to decadent western tastes but there is also a likely practical aspect - it's cheaper to leave it alone."

    Well, if you flip it, the hero/heroine suddenly becomes chirally reversed, cars are driving on the wrong side of the road, on which ads for FUJI are seen mirrored, and the Glock has the safety on the wrong side. Bad!

    I don't know whether a Manga helps for SR/GR though. IMHO a correctly packaged application suite [a reduced Matlab] and a nice textbook are more useful. I recall reading long ago some attempt at explaining SR in German, where the physics was buried by the author's insistence of bringing Marx into the plot. But then again, I also recall Asimov having a go at time dilation and getting it fully wrong.

    My knock on billions of dollars in funding non-school science outreach (or education, since the NSF mixes them) is that the private sector is likely doing it better and certainly more cost effectively.   Does this reach people who might otherwise not go into science and motivate them to do so?  If you can't believe it, you can't believe any of the programs funded by the NSF do either.  It is certainly already for young people who already like both science and manga - or parents who buy it for their kids because they want them to be interested in science.

    I should be clear; the book is not all manga.   In various spots of the story there are interludes which are straight-up science and quite well done but I focus on the manga because it's the concept.    It's really a pretty good primer.
    "Pay the man with the ponytail," said the amateur auctioneer at that fan convention I mentioned above where I interviewed people and got the picture of Bloggy done.  He was getting bids for various toys, comics and what not and that's what he said when the bidding for an item ended.

    "That won't mean a lot in this crowd," I joked as I watched the auction unfold but I got no response from anyone around me, not even a chuckle.   I looked to my right, and the unsmiling man staring straight ahead...had a ponytail.
    I'll laugh at that joke -- I admit I felt a bit of culture shock when taking the series to Wondercon (a similar kind of convention in San Francisco). Thanks for taking a look, Hank.

    I can solve one mystery: The books are published L-to-R in the original Japanese, so nothing has been flipped.

    There has always been a misconception of Manga being considered for kids. With complex stories and references to sciences and the occult, it goes far beyond the average childs book or even comic book. It has definitly been a while since I have picked one up, but when I was younger, all my allowence or paychecks would go towards buying the newest editions of my current Manga addiction.

    Btw to comment on the final bit about the short storm trooper.. If they had been shorter, wouldn't have hit their head on the door in episode IV a new hope.