Cartoonist, professor produce fun supplement to chemistry textbooks


This month, Associate Professor Craig Criddle shrinks to the size of an atom, is stranded on a desert island and mixes a synthetic banana daiquiri—all in the name of chemistry education.

Criddle is co-author, with award-winning cartoonist Larry Gonick, of The Cartoon Guide to Chemistry, published this month by HarperCollins. The guide intends to provide a fun supplement to standard chemistry texts.

"We mainly aimed for high school and first-year college chemistry students," said Criddle, a faculty member in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. "But we also wanted to make a book that would appeal to people of all ages, even experienced chemists."

In the book, Criddle's cartoon alter ego wears an alchemist's cloak as he explains the science behind matter's seemingly magical transformations. A distraught Aristotle watches as one after another of his theories is proved wrong. In the chapter on acids and bases, molecular imps run around stealing protons from one another. Robotic metals and furry-creature nonmetals cavort and form chemical relationships. A chapter set on a remote island has Criddle and a wise-cracking sidekick assembling wood, seashells and bat excrement to make things like emergency flares and pottery—accompanied, of course, by the appropriate balanced chemical equations.

Though it starts with basic concepts, the guide doesn't shy away from introducing big topics, such as thermodynamics and the often-dreaded organic chemistry. A review in the May 6 issue of Science predicted the textbook will appeal to trained chemists and students alike, adding that the $16.95 price tag makes it accessible to a mass market. Criddle said he plans to use the guide in his course Aquatic Chemistry and Microbiology (CEE 177) beginning in the fall.

Gonick, a former math major at Harvard, counts The Cartoon Guide to Physics, The Cartoon Guide to Genetics and the award-winning series The Cartoon History of the Universe among his many publications. He also is staff cartoonist at the children's science magazine Muse. At first Gonick worried a cartoon chemistry text "would be graphically very boring," he said, envisioning "250 pages of little circles." But he's pleased at the result, he said, and is looking forward to seeing how readers respond.

Hannah Hickey is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.