Monday, March 3, 2014
31 Days of Short Reviews #3: Margaret De Heer
Margaret De Heer's "Discovery" series moved on to a new subject in Science: A Discovery In Comics. In the vein of the "For Beginners" series (only with a looser, funnier and more cartoony approach) or Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe series, De Heer offers up a short, accurate and playful account of the history of science. De Heer is careful not to simply make this the Western history of science, as landmark discoveries from Muslim and Asian scientists are dutifully (if briefly) noted. Noting from the very beginning that science began as a holistic and interdependent field of study, De Heer structured the book roughly as a historical narrative but took plenty of side-trips to examine the details and history of specific scientific disciplines. She opens the book with a quick and witty philosophical exploration of what science is, exactly, with her own cartoon stand-in in constant dialogue with a figure who is supposed to be her partner. That cheerful interaction between the two pushes the book along at a pleasant pace, preventing it from bogging down into a simple information dump.
That's something De Heer is clearly sensitive to; she doesn't want the book to be dry or boring. At the same time, she wanted to make sure to talk about issues regarding gender bias, corruption and competition in the history of science. She correctly aligns the history of science with the history of philosophy, which makes me wish she had referenced thinkers like Thomas Kuhn in discussing not only what kinds of discoveries are made in science, but how scientists themselves think about their theories. Some of the equations and theorems she discusses are explained and glossed over perhaps a bit too quickly, leaving their meanings and significance on the blurry side. That's especially true when she gets into math and discusses the unusual numbers like Pi. Still, this is a mammoth undertaking, and I admired the way she took the book into contemporary issues like science vs religion, as well as the snaking timelines for certain key events and kinds of science. That concluded in the fantastic geological history of the earth, starting from 4.5 billion years ago up til today. Geology and quantum theory were good places to finish the book, as both have evolved and changed in what they can tell us and what implications they have for the nature of scientific inquiry itself. The images in this rather text-heavy book work because she makes an effort to provide a sort of panel-to-panel and page-to-page sense of motion and transition. They're also effective because she kept them loose, small, cartoony and clear. A heavier or denser line, combined with the text and surfeit of details, would have made this book unreadable. Instead, she lets some pages breathe with a minimum of text and a large image dominating the page and packs lots of information into other pages. This book would be a fine supplement for high schoolers or general knowledge seekers, but is more useful as an informational supplement than a source of pure entertainment.