Science Comics Rule the Web

Where do Schrödinger’s cat and lolcats collide? On the science-themed web comics that appeal to our inner nerd and inner child at the same time

Jorge Cham
Jorge Cham is the creator of Piled Higher and Deeper, one of many popular science-themed web comics Feedloader (Clickability)

There was once a time when schoolchildren might conceal a comic book behind a science textbook to avoid getting in trouble for looking at cartoons when they should be studying biology.

My, how times have changed. We’re here to tell you that you no longer have to choose. Funny, informative and absurd science and math-themed comics are alive and well, proliferating both on and off the internet. Read one and you’ll discover what thousands already have: They are one of the few forms of entertainment that can appeal to your inner child and inner nerd at the same time.

Now in its 15th year of publication, the popular web comic PhD (which stands for Piled Higher and Deeper) released its very own feature length movie on Sunday. The series, drawn by Jorge Cham, follows the lives of several grad students and professors and is published three times a week. The gags about the tedium of scientific research, the perils of procrastination and the endless search for free food are catnip to anyone involved in the oftentimes maddening realm of academia. The live-action movie can be downloaded for $10 and is being screened at campuses across the country.

PhD is only one of the many comics that poke fun at the world of science and math. One of the most widely read, xkcd, describes itself as “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” The comic began in 2005, when NASA roboticist Randall Munroe began scanning his notebook doodles and posting them on the internet. Now an award-winning comic, it is also published three times per week and covers everything from extremely detailed, slightly humorous maps of the ocean floor to in-jokes about the language of formal logic.

Abstruse Goose, another favorite, bills itself as “a strip cartoon about math, science, and geek culture.” While some of the comics joke about the immense complexity of video game programming or the absurdity of trying to argue with a string theorist, the site is one of few places on the web—or, really, anywhere—where Schrödinger’s cat and “lolcats” collide.

Some science comics focus on a particular subject, such as Dinosaur Comics (created by Ryan North, who was interviewed over on our Dinosaur Tracking blog last year), while others stick to one particular medium, such as Indexed, which presents diagrams and doodles drawn on an index card; the artist also writes Smithsonian‘s own Indexed in Quotes.

Take a look at the comics on the list, or tell us your own favorites in the comments section. While perusing these sites, though, be careful: Browsing with a few minutes of entertainment in mind can lead one down the dark path of hours of unintended procrastination. As PhD puts it, “Reading this can be hazardous to your research. Proceed with caution and use only in moderation.”

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.