17 comics that will actually teach you something

31 Mar 2016

Randall Munroe, the mind behind popular webcomic Xkcd, has a new feather to add to his already pretty feathery hat – a partnership with publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt that will see Munroe’s comics cropping up in high school textbooks throughout the US.

An ex-NASA roboticist, Munroe has been well-known on the internet for some time now, thanks to his wildly successful series, Xkcd, which boasts the tagline, ‘A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language’.

Through Xkcd, Munroe has sought to make people laugh, but also to teach them a bit about STEM, where possible.

In 2014, he ventured out of the digital world and into a wholly different one: publishing.

Munroe has now released two books through Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The first, What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions was a continuation of Xkcd spin-off blog What If?, which sought to answer readers’ mad-cap questions scientifically.

It was the second book, though, which led to – even inspired – the high-school textbook development.

Thing Explainer, released in 2015, followed on from Up Goer Five, a comic posted in November 2012. Up Goer Five” explained rocket science using only the 1,000 (or ten hundred) words most commonly used in the English language.

The textbooks – available from this summer – will follow this model, pairing Munroe’s familiar stick figures with simple explanations of complex scientific ideas.

While the partnership covers physics, biology and chemistry books, Munroe doesn’t just post about science. Sometimes – particularly in the early days of the series – he focuses on relationships. Other times, he’s just trying to make people laugh:

Alt text: Although maybe it's just a phase, like freshman year of college when I realised I could just buy frosting in a can

Alt text: Although maybe it’s just a phase, like freshman year of college when I realised I could just buy frosting in a can

Well, you stumped me

Alt text: I don’t want to talk about it

But when he has STEM on his mind, sometimes it can be quite the thing to behold. The problem here is in whittling down the over 1,600 (almost always) stellar comics to an even more stellar few.

Here are just a few of the great Xkcd comics that educate and entertain.

They show you why science shouldn’t be your only study option:

Every major's terrible

Alt text: Someday I’ll be the first to get a PhD in ‘Undeclared’. [Click for full image]

And how it may not be as glamorous as TV makes you think:

Science montage

Alt text: The rat’s perturbed; it must sense nanobots! Code grey! We have a Helvetica scenario!

But that, sometimes, scientific breakthroughs do happen:

Scientific breakthroughs and moments of inspiration

Alt text: Charles, I just talked to John and Mildred, who run that company selling seeds and nuts, and their kids with MOUTHS are starving!

And why we have to recognise the diversity in science:

Marie Curie zombie and diversity

Alt text: Although not permanently.

How different the Marvel universe could have been:

The Ohm and Spider-Man

Alt text: More generally, with great power comes great dEnergy/dt

The weirdness of being proud about not learning math:

Forgot algebra, math

Alt text: The only things you HAVE to know are how to make enough of a living to stay alive and how to get your taxes done. All the fun parts of life are optional

New memory devices:

Physics right hand rule

To really expand your mind try some noncartesian porn. Edwin Abbot Abbott has nothing on “Girls on Girls in Tightly Closed Nonorientable Spaces”

How to convert to metric, in real terms:

Convert to metric

Alt text: According to River, “adequate” vacuuming systems drain the human body at about half a litre per second. [Click for larger image]

The differences between Celsius and Fahrenheit:

Celsius v Fahrenheit

Alt text: “Radians Fahrenheit or radians Celsius?” “Uh, sorry, gotta go!”

The depth of our oceans and lakes:

Lakes and oceans, relative depth

Alt text: James Cameron has said that he didn’t know its song would be so beautiful. He didn’t close the door in time. He’s sorry.

How close space actually is:

Astronaut vandalism

Alt text: That night, retired USAF pilots covertly replaced the ’62’ with ’50’

But also the magnitude of space, with math:

Height of space

Alt text: Interestingly, on a true vertical log plot, I think the Eiffel Tower’s sides really would be straight lines. [Click for full image]

And how long it takes for pop culture to traverse the universe:

Interstellar memes

Alt text: The strongest incentive we have to develop faster-than-light travel is that it would let us apologise in advance. [Click for larger image]

Why conspiracy theorists are overthinking it:

Moon landing conspiracy theories

Alt text: Okay, so Spirit and Opportunity are pretty awesome. And Kepler. And New Horizons, Cassini, Curiosity, TiME, and Project M. But c’mon, if the Earth were a basketball, in 40 years, no human’s been more than half an inch from the surface

The timing of astronomical occurrences:

Meteor showers timing

Alt text: Remember, meteors always hit the tallest object around

The possibility of undiscovered planets lurking in our solar system:


Alt text: Superman lies near the bird/plane boundary over a range of distances, which explains the confusion. [Click for larger image]

And just how mean we are to the robots that are out there:

Spirit rover

Alt text: On January 26th, 2274 Mars days into the mission, NASA declared Spirit a ‘stationary research station’, expected to stay operational until the dust buildup on its solar panels forces a final shutdown

All comics via xkcd.com.

Main image via Shutterstock

Gigglebit is Siliconrepublic.com’s daily dose of the funny and fantastic in science and tech, to help start your day on a lighter note.

Kirsty Tobin was careers editor at Silicon Republic