I like to scout for creative and innovative ways to communicate science. So when I discovered Dr Stone on Crunchyroll, I did not let a second pass before pressing the play button.
Dr Stone is a Shounen manga* and anime. Shounen are stories directed to teenager boys (but are also appreciated by girls, sometimes more than the female counterpart Shoujo). The Shounen young protagonist typically has a special quirk or trait and he is on a journey of continuous self-improvement to achieve an out-of-reach impossible goal — and very often saving the world in doing so. It is a way to teach young teens to be determined, to rise after failures, and to grow into just and honest men.
Historically, the core theme of Shounen has been fighting: the objective of the protagonist is becoming stronger, providing a clear and tangible feeling of improvement as he defeats bigger and stronger opponents.
But do not be fooled. Dr Stone is not your average Shounen. It is the story of Ishigami Senku, an extremely talented high schooler that woke up 3700 years after all humanity had been instantaneously petrified. Nothing of our known world is left, and planet earth is now reset to a Stone Age. No buildings, no internet, no human artefacts. But Senku has a dream: he wants to travel to space, so he needs to rebuild science and progress from scratch.
In the first season of Dr Stone, he will learn how to revive other petrified human beings, he will meet a village that has never been petrified living in the stone age and he will make clothes, glass, explosives, metals, radios and more.
The anime is over the top, it follows the typical clique of overly-sexified female characters and the animation is, in all honesty, not the best in the anime industry. That said, I loved it! And here is a list of reasons why.
Science is made fun, yet accurate
I was surprised by the level of details in the science and experiments. Science is not portrayed as incomprehensible mumble-jumble. Senku explains what he wants to achieve and how he wants to achieve it, down to the chemical formulas. He explains why something worked or why it didn’t if the experiment failed.
For dramatic effect, the protagonists of the story make questionable choices on what to produce next. While I would have searched for available materials (like tools that might be available at few meters below ground from our current world) or I would have worked as soon as possible my way to steam machines, Senku’s creek works in a bizarre way, moving from A to B in the smallest number of steps possible — even if the leaps seem to be completely unrelated. This is justified by the story (as they have reasons on why to move so fast), but it also makes for a great way to include fun and quirky discoveries and machines.
For example, they have to make a cotton candy machine with the ultimate goal of producing filaments for incandescent bulbs. One doesn’t need these light-hearted expedients to keep me hooked on a science-full story. A teenager, however, might find more entertaining to watch the making of cotton candy machines or katanas or ramen in the challenging times of stone ages.
My pride was shaken that a high schooler could be so knowledgable about the history of science, but I was happy that even grown-up PhD-decorated scientists like me could learn new things in their leisure screen time.
The idea of progress
Having to re-build science from scratch, Dr Stone protagonists help us realize how much of science is a continuous and collective endeavour. This sense of progress is threefold in the anime. The show reflects on how much humankind had achieved since we started inhabiting the earth, represents how progress builds up and highlights the “side effects” of science.
When Senku wants to obtain a new tool, he makes charts showing all the things that would be necessary before to get to that point. Progress is intertwined. We could not have made radios if humanity had not previously produced the glass to make vacuum tubes. We could not have made glass without a way to reach high temperatures in heat-resistant containers made of pottery. And pottery would not be easy to be made without tools. And so on…
Moreover, the manga’s creator had not forgotten to maintain this sense of progression in Senku’s stone age. It would have been easier to make an episode about pulleys and forget about them. Instead, the creators make sure that a tool, acquired in a previous episode, gets used throughout the rest of the season or improved upon. Exactly like it would happen in real life.
Finally, there are secondary unexpected improvements that science brings to society. Senku made glass to produce containers to handle acids, but now he can also make lenses and improve the lives of stone age people with bad eyesight.
Head of the village: “What you are making is totally unrelated, and yet the village become more and more enriched.”
Senku: “Yeah. That’s the way science is.”
In a sense, the growth journey of the Shonen protagonist in Dr Stone is not Senku’s journey, but the collective journey of humanity.
A positive message
The journey from the stone age to space travel is challenging. Because science is challenging. Senku fails. Experiments need to be repeated over and over. Science takes time and determination.
Senku: “It’s not that there are things that science can’t explain. You look for the rules behind those things. Science is just a name for the steady, pain-in-the-ass effort that goes behind it.”
Failure is what scientists have to live with more often than success, but this does not take away the excitement for knowledge and the fun of discovery. Not by accident, one of Senku’s catch-phrase is “This is exhilarating!”.
As every respectable Shounen, there is also a proper antagonist, a super muscular boy adverse to the idea of progress that wants to kill Senku. He believes that science and technology have corrupted humanity. In his view, they create disparities in society, allowing the rich to become richer and take advantage of the poor. Only a new stone age where the strongest and the fittest can govern would save us.
On the other side, Senku’s message is quite different. He shows over and over how science levels the field for everyone. You cannot be too weak, too old or too young, too poor for science. Everyone that put enough efforts and dedication into studies can excel in science and can contribute to progress. Science makes possible for everyone to live a better life, without distinctions of status.
Surviving high school is difficult for some, and Dr Stone inspire its target audience with science, teaching them that knowledge can help them independently from the status where they started, against the bullies and the fear of rejection. Senku shows them a way to grow that contribute to society, that is not based on being the strongest or bully others, and that teaches them to be determined. And this is a great way of becoming an adult.
Should you watch Dr Stone?
Absolutely! I highly recommend Dr Stone for all teenagers, but also for all the anime-loving science communicators out there that are curious about new creative ways to communicate science to a wider audience. As I said, it is not perfect. But if you can smile at the show flaws, there is a lot to be learned. I wish there were more sciency female characters, of course. Growing up, I did not care about the gender of my role models, but I am not sure that they did not subconsciously influence me.
I am now watching Cells at work, but I am already looking for creative science communication art forms to enjoy next. Let me know what you recommend in the comments!
* Boichi, the Mangaka who draws the manga version of Dr Stone, majored in physics in college. He chose physics because he wanted to improve his drawing and story-telling skills for sci-fi stories. This is the most bizarre reason I have heard so far about choosing physics as your majors. Yet, it must have worked. Boichi is one of the most talented Mangakas in the industry!