In a previous post, we took a look at the board game AEON, designed by Dr. Karl Wienand and his team, which managed to communicate current theories on the origin of life without relying heavily on creative freedom. The next stop on our science engagement journey is the hit manga series full of over-the-top action, wacky reaction faces, and a healthy dose of scientific inventions. With two seasons of anime and a third one coming, I am talking about none other than Dr. Stone written by Riichiro Inagaki and illustrated by Boichi!
In this post, I aim to dissect what makes Dr. Stone a great piece of science engagement despite that not being the main focus. This is less a literary analysis and more of a breakdown for the sake of learning. Warning: there will be spoilers.
Grab a cup of coffee (or a drink of your choice) and let's explore the different pieces that come together to turn this love letter to science into a jam-packed exciting adventure.
The series opens with our main character, the science genius, Senku and his friends in modern-day Japan when a mysterious light shrouds the Earth and petrifies every human on Earth. 3700 years later, Senku manages to break free from his stone prison which eroded away due to nitric acid from guano. In this post-apocalyptic world where nature has taken back the planet and all the structures once made by man have decayed, Senku searches for a way to revive all of civilisation, starting with his best friend, Taiju.
Setting– celebrating humanity's scientific achievement
Instead of being transported to another world (+/- magic), the setting of a post-apocalyptic Earth gives more weight to the science by sticking to the limitations of how the world functions and behaves (minus the petrifying light). In this stone world, necessities such as soap, electricity, and agriculture are no longer available and the facilities required to make them lost to time. In order for Senku and his friends to survive, face off foes, and save more people, it is necessary to recreate these innovations from the ground up. And science is the key.
Later chapters introduce a stone-age settlement (Ishigami village) that turns out to be descendants of astronauts on the International Space Station when the petrification disaster occurred. The contrast between the villager's elementary understanding of science and Senku's give the audience a fresh perspective and appreciation for how far humanity has come. For every problem Senku and his companions encounter, there is an elegant solution already invented or discovered by scientific minds of the past. While the path towards each solution may be strenuous and complicated, by tackling down each component one at a time, the end result is ten billion percent achievable.
Shounen traits– generating excitement
As a shounen manga (aimed at the demographic of teenage boys), Dr. Stone carries many of the traits that you would expect– a lot of over-the-top action, exaggerated reactions, and themes such as camaraderie and hard work sprinkled with comedy and skits. The series carries a cartoonish tone rather than a realistic one which lends itself well with how much detail the series portrays with regards to the science. Instead of stressing over small details like the efficiency of their homemade magnet, the series prioritises the excitement of creating a magnet from iron and copper in a world without any modern technology.
Progression in Dr. Stone is communicated by scientific advancement. The three-act structure manages to make each invention as impactful as acquiring a new skill or power-up. Every invention started with a need or desire followed by a roadmap by good ol’ Senku, visualising the often strenuous production process. Then the audience witnesses the gang roll up their sleeves, each with their own part to play. While Senku’s inner circle works on the intricacies, others gather natural resources and refine them into the necessary parts. At last, everyone gathers around as the invention comes together and functions in all its glory. To quote the motto of Shounen Jump, a popular manga label: "Hard work, friendship, victory!"
Portrayal of science
While the abilities of the characters are based on real-life, they are dialled to 11. Super hearing, extreme stamina, godly combat ability to name a few. Unsurprisingly, Senku's extensive scientific knowledge and lightning-fast mental calculation is no exception. However, by grounding itself within the boundaries of science as much as possible, Senku’s intellect remains believable. Those familiar with the inventions and scientific principles might even be able to guess Senku’s plans before turning the page.
The series makes effective use of visuals to explain scientific phenomena and break down the components necessary for different inventions. One of the reoccurring skits in the series is the dumbfounded reactions of characters who used to live in the modern era whenever Senku announced his absurd plans, such as making an automobile in the stone world. However, Senku's roadmaps elegantly impart the unquestionable feasibility of these scientific achievements despite not having much modern-day equipment and infrastructure. At the end of the day, nothing beats having a strong understanding of the principles.
One of my favourite details of the story is how Senku reacts to the petrification phenomenon. Instead of handwaved or left unexplained, which is typical in soft science-fiction, the series shows Senku forming hypotheses based on what he knows, testing them using experiments, and refining his understanding accordingly. In other words, he is using the scientific method! And his efforts were not in vain. Not only does Senku find a formula to revive his friends, but he also manages to understand the petrification enough to use it to his advantage.
Another interesting thing the series portrays is the ripple effect as a consequence of scientific endeavour. While many of Senku's projects are made to tackle the task at hand, they also improve the quality of life, most notably, for the members of Ishigami village. While nearsightedness and bacterial infection are relatively easy to treat with our current understanding of physics and medicine, they were life-long setbacks for the villagers before Senku made glasses and antibiotics.
In traditional science engagement/communication, the results, such as how much a person learns before and after an activity, are often hyperfocused on. While it is understandable that numbers are more easily quantified and afford future iterations, these activities can sometimes feel, for lack of a better term, devoid of emotion. Letting interest and engagement develop organically (and accepting when it doesn't) can be just as powerful if not more. I always find myself coming back to Winston Churchill's quote: "I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught".
Despite doing a PhD and having studied the sciences all my life, reading Dr. Stone has been a blast and I can't even imagine how much of a caffeinated monkey my 10-year-old self would be reading this series for the first time. It is my hope that institutions will be more open to less-quantifiable and more experimental forms of engagement and that we will see more content like this in the future (something I most definitely will contribute to).
Hey, Cogito here. Thanks for reading! Bet you didn't notice I used nappa cabbage for the hair in the thumbnail.
I've been juggling between my PhD research and working on a few other projects which, hopefully, I can announce in the near future. Things are coming along, albeit slowly.
Until next time!