Cartoon Guides

How many times have you got bored reading those textbooks on physics or chemistry? And can anyone really understand statistics besides statisticians? What about history? How many people do you know that read a book on history for fun?

The Cartoon Guide and Cartoon History series are a unique and amazingly creative set of books that attempts to make a number of subjects accessible to everyone. Larry Gonick, the author and cartoonist, spent a number of years in academia (including a year in TIFR, Mumbai!) before he decided that he had a lot more fun drawing cartoons!

Cartoon History of the Universe The Cartoon History series was the first I encountered. I saw a couple of scans of some pages and it immediately gripped my attention. Being in the US at the time, it was easy to find a couple of copies on eBay and quickly ordered issues of the first two volumes. I finished reading them in a couple of days and wanted more! I found the third volume and Cartoon History of the United States at my local library and read those too. They were brilliant, to say the least.

Cartoon Guide to Sex

I next started on the Cartoon Guides. I manged to get my hands on (and read) the Cartoon Guides to Genetics, Statistics, Chemistry, Environment and even Sex! Most of these latter guides were written in collaboration with an expert in the field but nevertheless retauned the fun style that Gonick had already established in Cartoon History. I think what makes these cartoon books work, besides the format of cartooning, is the narrative style of teaching or explaining. A lot of people are more comfortable learning when someone is actively explaining something to them as opposed to read it drily from a book. Gonick’s cartoons maintain this feel by having characters that pepper the book along with the regular illustrations and give that narrative continuity.

When I was a TA at a US university, one of the exercises we did with our students was called a VARK test. VARK – Visual, Audio, Reading and Kinesthetic – referred to ways of learning. The cartoon guides could be said to cover visual (pictures!), reading (there’s text) and kinesthetic (the cartoons point, move, etc) ways of teaching. Maybe that’s why they’re so popular!

Another thing I love is that while each of these books has a bibliography, it isn’t like your standard boring bibliography at the end of other academic books but is also illustrated with cartoons like the rest of the book. Why can’t more textbooks be like this? – My few seconds of fame!

Yesterday my colleague, Prayas came up to me and said that the latest edition of Business Today had an article about and that we were both featured in it.

Obviously, I rushed out and bought a copy of the magazine! 🙂 Unfortunately I can’t link to the story here as the online edition of the magazine is subscription only.

Prayas who had spoken about the need for Creative Commons licenses in India had got a pretty decent write up and a picture of him talking was the image for the story. All that got said about me was:

Ashwan (27), is a science professor from Mumbai who passionately follows science blogs around the globe.

But hey, I’m not complaining! It’s always cool to see your name in print as long as nothing bad is being said about you!

Then this morning, I opened my mailbox to see an email from Peter which had a link to a story by CNN-IBN about!

The short news clip had been uploaded to YouTube by some kind soul and I could finally see my glorious 2 seconds of fame that others had been telling me about for quite a few days!

Here, for your viewing pleasure, is the clip in question. Share and Enjoy!

Go with your GUT

A series of exchanges on a mailing list led me to write a fairly long piece about the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and grand unified theories (GUTs.) With a little bit of editing, I’ve turned it into my first science blogpost!

Since the time of Newton with his Laws of Motion to present day science, one simple understanding has prevailed. Forces acting upon bodies are what keeps the world going. Literally and figuratively.

While in our everyday life, we can encounter all kinds of forces like the friction when you’re trying to push that heavy table across the floor, to the difficulty you have carrying a heavy package up a flight of stairs, there are only four fundamental forces in nature. All other forces are just manifestations of these four.

Solar System

The one we most commonly encounter and which most people will readily identify is the gravitational force. Gravity is a force that acts between any two bodies that have a mass. It is the force that holds the stars in their places, the solar system together, keeps the moon orbiting the earth, not to mention all the TV satellites that allow us to watch Cartoon Network anywhere in the world (more or less.)

That package I talked about earlier is so hard to carry up a flight of stairs because gravity is pulling down on it and you need to overcome gravity with your legs and arms to get the package up! Just imagine, the entire planet Earth is pulling down at that package and you can beat it with a little effort!

That fact illustrates an important point about gravity. It is the weakest of the four fundamental forces. The strongest of them all is what physicists in a total lack of originality have named the “strong” force (sometimes also referred to as the strong interaction.) This force is what was thought to hold protons and neutrons together inside an atomic nucleus. Today there is a different understanding of that, but more on that later.

The next strongest force is the electromagnetic interaction on which a lot (if not all!) of our modern technology is based on. In fact, practically all the forces we experience in daily life besides gravity are due to electromagnetic interactions!

Electromagnetism is the interaction between charged particles and the electrical and magnetic fields that this creates. If the electromagnetic interaction were stronger than the “strong” force, the protons (which are all positively charged) would fly apart due to repulsion and there would be no possibility of a nucleus forming.

But then, why does the electromagnetic interaction have any effect all? If the “strong” nuclear force is so overwhelming, shouldn’t it wipe out any effect of any other forces? That’s true. And the answer to that is the range at which the forces operate. The “strong” nuclear force is very very strong, but the scale and range it works on is very very small. It falls off to virtually zero beyond a couple of femtometers. (1 million billionth of a meter or 10E-15 meters!)

Today’s understanding of the strong force is that it is a force that affects quarks, the actual fundamental blocks that make up protons and neutrons and the residual effect is seen as a force between protons and neutrons! Lets quit while we can still understand things and move on to the last force in this mixed bag! 🙂

The “weak” force (weak interaction) is another force that manifests itself on the nuclear level. Obviously it gets its name from the fact that it is much much weaker than the “strong” force and weaker than even electromagnetism. Like the “strong” force it also operates on a vanishingly tiny scale (about 10E-18m.) At the risk of being dismissive, most of what the “weak” interaction achieves is of interest only to physicists. About the only physical phenomenon you’re likely to have heard of or encounter (and even then probably only in a physics or chemistry text) is that is due to the “weak” interaction is that of beta decay.

What’s this GUT all about then? and a new start

I attended in Chennai this past weekend and even spoke there on Science Blogging.

Ashwan Lewis on science blogs
Originally uploaded by Jace.

I mostly talked about some of my favourite science blogs and talked about the potential blogging holds for building bridges between scientists and others and even between scientists.

Obviously after the talk I was asked whether I had my own science blog and quite sheepishly I had to say no. But then I thought Why not?

And so here it is. I don’t know whether I’ll be able to maintain the momentum or whether I do know enough about science to be able to write a lot but I sure will try!