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Reading the comics in my local paper recently, I came across three strips I think are worth examining with a scientific eye. First, the Baby Blues strip from November 28, 2011, shows the father, Darryl, watching a nature program with the baby, Wren. The television show’s narrator describes a saltwater crocodile attacking a young water buffalo. This strip introduced a weeklong series about how much Wren enjoys bloodthirsty animal shows.
My initial reaction to the crocodile/water buffalo strip was skeptical. I wondered if the habitats of saltwater crocs overlap with the normal range of water buffalo, so off to the internet I went. (My preconception was that the ranges would not overlap, because I thought water buffalo were an African animal.) It turns out that my thinking was exactly wrong because I was confusing water buffalo with the African buffalo. Both the saltwater crocodile and water buffalo inhabit India and other parts of Southeast Asia. African buffalo are not closely related to either the water buffalo or American bison but do live across large areas of Africa. Water buffalo are domesticated throughout India and Asia and serve as draft, meat, and dairy animals.
Saltwater crocodiles are the largest living reptiles, and can be more than six meters long and weigh more than 1,000 kg. They are capable of killing and eating fully grown water buffalo, so a baby water buffalo would be a relatively easy target. Despite their name, saltwater crocs spend a significant time in estuaries and other freshwater habitats. They tend to spend the dry season, when rivers are at low water, in the ocean. Australian ecological activist Val Plumwood famously survived an attack by a saltwater crocodile and wrote an amazing account of the event in her essay "Being Prey."
Two editions of Close to Home caught my eye the same week. First, on November 28, 2011, an orthodontist claims after a few more sets of braces, he will have put on enough to “circle the globe.” A map on the wall shows the progress of a horizontal line off one side of the map and continuing to nearly close the loop in North America. The problem I have with the image is that the map looks like a Mercator projection, which dramatically overrepresents the size of land masses far away from the equator. Lines of latitude all run parallel to the equator, but only the equator is the full diameter of the Earth. I estimate the line on the orthodontist’s map goes through Portland, Oregon, which is at a latitude of 45 degrees north. His wire around the world would be about 7/10 as long as one around the equator—40,000 kilometers—although they would appear equal on a Mercator map. (The web comic Xkcd recently examined the various map types and proposed a relationship between your favorite map projection and other personal traits.)
The very next day, Close to Home appears to show two NASA astronauts having a problem on a space station calling for technical support, but being placed on hold. I think the joke is a good one: We have probably all had to endure hold time when calling for technical support. My concern is this strip lacks internal consistency. The two astronauts float (as they would in the free-fall environment of a space station) while a liquid (water?) leaks out of a console and falls to the floor while puddles form under the leak. If the setting is an orbiting space shuttle or the International Space Station, the leaking fluid should also be floating. In fact, the liquid wouldn’t even form the oblong drops shown in this panel because surface tension would make the drops nearly spherical.
I also want to acknowledge one of my longtime favorites, Foxtrot, drawn by a physics graduate, Bill Amend. In some excellent strips from the 1990s, Peter Fox takes high school physics and struggles through some of the standard labs. I really appreciate that Amend included correct equations and mathematics anytime they came up in the strip.
Finally, no treatment of science in the comics would be complete without noting the importance of Gary Larson’s The Far Side. Many of his science-inspired strips are about ecology or anthropology, but they were still tremendously popular in the physics department when I was an undergraduate. Larson is probably the only cartoonist with three different insects named after him: a louse, Strigiphilus garylarsoni; a butterfly, Serratoterga larsoni; and a beetle, Garylarsonus.
Science teachers who peruse the comics pages can find examples of both good and bad science to use in their classrooms. See
Jacob Clark Blickenstaff is teacher education programs manager for the American Physical Society. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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