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Physical Chemistry

Cartoonish Chemistry

Humorous guidebook sometimes succeeds but mostly fails to teach

August 29, 2005 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 83, Issue 35

The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry, by Larry Gonick and Craig Criddle, HarperCollins, 2005, 249 pages, $16.95 (ISBN 0-06-093677-0)

The inherent conflict of terminology in the title "The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry" caught my attention. After all, cartoons are funny and chemistry is serious science. For about the first 10 pages I thought that the authors of the book, science cartoonist Larry Gonick and Stanford University engineer Craig Criddle, were actually going to accomplish this "cold fusion" of concepts in their clever and witty discussion of the early history of chemistry.

Unfortunately, the cartoons soon lost their humor, the chemistry got bogged down in details--sometimes even wrong--and both became somewhat boring, despite the obvious exuberance of the authors. Reading the book was somewhat reminiscent of my annual chore of evaluating incoming graduate students in our "Workshop for Teaching Assistants," in which they each present a 15-minute basic chemistry "class." There are always a few who manage to butcher the chemistry with boundless enthusiasm.

Gonick calls himself the overeducated cartoonist and has an extensive curriculum vita (he says that means "résumé" in French) to back that up. His website,, lists over 80 schools, colleges, and universities at which his books are either required or recommended. In addition to his career as a staff cartoonist for the children's magazine Muse, Gonick has written the three-volume series "The Cartoon History of the Universe" and a multitude of cartoon guides to everything from tax reform to the computer to sex. For most of his cartoon guides, he has enlisted coauthors with expertise in the specified fields. Criddle, who also has an impressive pedigree, teaches courses in aquatic chemistry and environmental biotechnology and has a long list of research publications.

Some of Gonick's cartoons are excellent, with a hint of "The Far Side" mentality. Take his discussion of Joseph Priestley, who stored gases produced by chemical reactions in pig bladders. In one panel, Priestley jumps away from one of the bladders lying in a chair, exclaiming, "I've invented the whoopee cushion!" Later, Gonick envisions a dancing Priestley, breathing the oxygen that he's collected, pronouncing that he's invented the "oxygen bar."

The common tale concerning Antoine Lavoisier's demise is cleverly reduced: "Then he lost his head in the French Revolution, and the program, like his head, had to be carried out by others."

Although the use of humor to make science more palatable is an admirable goal, there were times I found it difficult to decide which was intended to make the other more comprehensible. Part of the explanation of pressure as force per unit of area depicts the book's omnipresent narrator, apparently an alchemist, jumping up from the point of a stool-sized tack, while his assistant sits comfortably on the head of another tack. It's difficult to imagine anyone considering pressure when deciding whether to sit on a stool or a needle.

The target audience for this book is not specified, but I think it will be of little use (or interest) to someone who has not taken at least a basic chemistry course--the book seems to be teaching a reader who already understands the material. "The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry" might help the teacher of an introductory course to see some old ideas in a new light or to introduce a new chapter or section of text. It might also serve as a review for someone who has been away from chemistry classes and textbooks for a while.

The topics appear to have been randomly selected from several different high school or introductory college chemistry texts, with little continuity. Gonick and Criddle assume the reader has an understanding of gas laws when they explain Lavoisier's experiments in chapter one, while electrolysis and electron wave-particle duality are discussed in chapter two. Thermochemistry is thrown into chapter five between chemical reactions and states of matter, but thermodynamics doesn't appear until chapter 10.

Some complicated concepts, such as the emptiness of space in an atom and the role of metallic bonds in determining the properties of metals, get interesting treatment, but the value is lost in superficiality. Beginners are likely to be confused as the book bounces back and forth between superficial pop science, detailed discussions, and even downright errors.

Gonick and Criddle tell us "liquids behave as if they have a skin. Attraction among surface molecules--surface tension--knits them together more tightly than interior molecules. That explains why bugs can walk on water." Here we have, respectively, a correct statement, a false statement, and a nonexplanation bound together like a scientific revelation in a TV situation comedy. The accompanying cartoon shows a bug walking on water (good) and the narrator alchemist standing on water wearing water skis (what?).

The next panel is a confusing mishmash, illustrating the thermal expansion of liquids in thermometers with spherical raindrops of varying radii, which might possibly be splashing into a pool in which the alchemist is standing, accompanied by a butterfly saying "and why liquids form spherical droplets!"

The authors seem to suggest the addition of salt to ice when making ice cream serves primarily to melt the ice so the water makes better thermal contact with the container, with no mention that the melting process actually lowers the temperature.

After a weak discussion of a bomb calorimeter, Gonick and Criddle declaim: "The bomb calorimeter is great, wonderful, fantastic, but a bit unrealistic, because the reaction vessel is sealed. Some reactions in the bomb may produce high pressures, which can affect temperatures." The quantity H, first associated with constant pressure, is later defined as the heat change when the reaction is run outdoors.

The book's limitations are unfortunate, because it can be difficult to attract students to science in general, and chemistry in particular. This is partly due to the prevailing public view of "chemical" as a dirty word, but a large part of the blame must be attributed to the intrinsic difficulty of the subject in comparison to business, social sciences, and the humanities. There is certainly a need to make the study of chemistry more palatable to the general population.

While this reviewer has never been accused of being overly serious in his approach to teaching chemistry, this book seems too uneven--like leaded fluff--to be of much value in addressing that need. , for chemists, it will be worth a chuckle or two, and may bring back memories (fond or otherwise) of struggling with concepts and formalisms in an introductory chemistry course.

Gary L. Bertrand is professor emeritus of chemistry at the University of Missouri, Rolla. He maintains his interest in chemical education with interactive online tutorials and simulations, and collections of sophomoric chemical humor at


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