“Open any math book and you’ll find a ton of equations. Each one is an expression of someone’s thoughts. There’s always someone on the other side of the math. Someone trying to send us a message. Someone trying to make a connection. I work hard at math so I can make that connection.” – Math Girls.
Quick, name three female Marvel characters who are good at math.
I spend an inordinate amount of time reading Marvel comic books, and I only came up with two: Valeria Richards and maybe Moira MacTaggert, hardly first tier characters. If you ask the same question for male characters, the answers fly off the page: Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Reed Richards, Hank Pym, Doctor Doom, Henry McCoy, Black Panther, Doctor Octopus, and on and on….
As a comic lover and math lover with two daughters, I have always found the paucity of science-smart female comic characters immensely frustrating. Which is why I was so excited when Bento Books announced their Kickstarter to translate and publish something called Math Girls, a Japanese manga series by Hiroshi Yuki and Mika Hisaka involving three characters, two girls and a boy, grappling with math while navigating the emotional minefield of high school.
My copy at long last arrived, and I fell in love. It’s hard to say whether it’s a book about interesting math that has a really fun romance story, or a cool high school romance book that has some really great math. Either way, it’s everything I wanted. The character dynamic is perfectly balanced. Miruka is a mathematical genius who challenges the male narrator to solve intriguing problems in the most efficient way possible. He is the Salieri to her Mozart, always struggling just to keep up and constantly exhilarated by the sharp brilliance of her insights into a topic he dearly loves.
He is in turn the tutor to Tetra, a girl who represents most of us, demanding to know why the math we’re taught in school is true. Why is 1 not a prime number? Why can’t we just describe taking the absolute value as “removing the negative sign”? These are all those questions we might have had back in high school, terribly important and with very interesting answers, but either didn’t ask out of shyness or did ask and were told “it’s because that’s what the equation says” by our harried and underpaid math teachers.
Mathematically, there’s something for everyone, then. Tetra and the narrator work through some bits of normal algebra and take their time to stop and ask why things are the way they are, and there’s something to learn there even for grizzled math veterans. Miruka and the narrator, meanwhile, romp gleefully through the more advanced math of pre-calculus, asking questions about trigonometric identities, de Moivre’s Theorem, and prime factorizations that provide all manner of Hey That’s Pretty Nifty moments.
Meanwhile, there’s romance afoot. The narrator starts off thinking he is just friends with Miruka. They spend hours talking about math together, and her insistence on rigor and elegance challenges him to be the best thinker he can be, but surely there’s nothing more to their relationship than that… or IS there? Meanwhile, Tetra’s developing crush on her tutor blows in the uncertainty of whether Miruka and the narrator are meant to be. It’s a classic set up, and that very warm familiarity is a wonderful thing to settle back into after a couple of pages of mathematical pondering, a place to recharge your batteries for the next plunge into intricate identities.
The pacing is great, the math examples chosen by Yuki are brisk and exciting, and Hisaka’s art is wispy and appropriate. Most importantly, the books shows that anybody can be passionate about math, whether you are insanely gifted or struggling with the basics, there is room for something wonderful to be discovered, and I think that’s a message any student could stand to hear.
The only bit of a complaint that I have is that in my edition, the Greek letters get dropped from the translated text balloons. They’re there where it matters, in the artwork, so it’s not too hard to figure out what should go in the blanks of the dialogue, but if you’re getting it for a student, it’s probably a good idea to fill in the sigmas and pis to keep them moving and reading. Hopefully, this problem has since been corrected, but even if it hasn’t, we’re talking about maybe 5 missing characters in 180 pages, so it’s no biggie.
In short, it’s a beautiful series about people, girls and boys, finding excitement and satisfaction in talking about numbers and their relations, and if we had more things like it out there in the marketplace, maybe there would be less math anxiety and more math curiosity. And that would be quite a thing.