Calvin and Hobbes and Childhood Science

Imagination can be awfully addictive. I spent a lot of my childhood dreaming about made-up worlds, outer space and how the universe just doesn’t seem to make sense. I also ate up stories by other dreamers, from fantasy to science fiction. But there was one particular dreamer whose fantasies drew me in so long ago I can’t even remember when I got hooked.

Calvin and Hobbes was a story about an out-of-control dreamer. Not only that, but Calvin was a lover of the beauty of nature, so he tended to dream about the same things lovers of science dream about. Why is the universe the strange-seeming way it is? What happened millions of years ago? Is there intelligent life on other planets, and if so why haven’t we encountered it? All questions from a typical young mind trying to figure out the world.

I haven’t read the funny pages regularly since Calvin and Hobbes ended in 1995 — a wise decision by its creator, Bill Watterson, who didn’t want the strip to get stale. Fans of Calvin and Hobbes are also some of the most loyal, nostalgic comic fans out there. When the strip ended, it left a gap behind for a lot of us obsessive dreamers.

Now we live in an age of web comics. Many of these comics are far better than most of what you’ll find in newspapers today because these artists can lay their dreams and ideas out without worrying about the restrictions of syndication. Some of them wonderfully touch on the joys of science and explore the joy of childlike imagination much like Calvin and Hobbes did. But for me, Watterson’s strip will always be when I first saw science, beauty and imagination mix seamlessly.

The strip has been gone for longer than 15 years, but because its focus was on the timeless aspects of being human, Watterson’s humor and observations hold up today. Here’s a sampling of the most prominent science in Calvin and Hobbes:

Physics:  The duo decides to test special relativity by rolling down a hill in a wagon. Calvin famously renamed the Big Bang with the more sensationalist term “The Horrendous Space Kablooie” which even some cosmologists are fond of. Our protagonist even remarks on orbit trajectories as he flies off a swing.

Environmental and Planetary sciences: The strip had a heavy environmental message. A major setting was a vast plot of woods Calvin had access to and he hated to see it disrespected and damaged. At one point, Hobbes reminds Calvin that we need the Earth more than we need it. In one storyline, Calvin gets so frustrated with pollution that he and Hobbes go to Mars instead. This opened up a long storyline in which they have an encounter with the Viking spacecraft and even run into an alien. Calvin’s adventures visiting other worlds as the self-narrating Spaceman Spiff are also among his most dramatic and notorious.

Dinosaurs: But, for all his outer-space adventures, if Calvin was any kind of scientist, he’d probably be a paleontologist. He was obsessed with dinosaurs, and they were frequent guest stars in the comic. Oftentimes, Calvin imagined he was one. A lot of people who loved dinosaur science as a kid can probably identify with Calvin here. Though not everyone shared his wild imagination about the ancient reptiles.

Math: Contrary to his love of space and dinosaurs — and I’m guessing many biologists and my fellow writers will relate to this — Calvin struggled with math. He did everything he could to avoid it. Spaceman Spiff was not particularly helpful with Calvin’s math woes. Hobbes was full of smart-sounding but unhelpful advice. At one point Calvin, in my personal favorite of all the strips, even abused the abstract nature of mathematics to declare himself a math atheist.

Science Fiction: Calvin used his imagination to defy the laws of nature in a manner many kids do — with a simple cardboard box. That box became machines straight out of science fiction, using it for everything from shape-changing machine to a cloning machine to a time travel machine. Calvin predictably used his time travel machine to visit the dinosaurs, and narrowly escape being devoured by one.

Inquisitiveness: The 6-year-old protagonist didn’t spend the entire time in his head, though. He asked questions, and a lot of them. Calvin’s dad liked to play with his son’s curiosity, giving ridiculous answers to Calvin’s questions, such as what the wind is, what happens when the sun sets, and how load limits on bridges are determined. Calvin is largely remembered for testing his parents’ patience, but he tested a great many things. At Calvin’s best, he could be regarded a model for one of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget’s “little scientists,” intuitively testing and exploring how the world works.

What are some of your favorite strips?


5 Comments on “Calvin and Hobbes and Childhood Science”

  1. Jimmy says:

    I don’t believe I’ve ever seen that Iced tea strip before.

    • Sean Treacy says:

      You know, as I was going through my C&H collection looking for material for this post, I happened upon that one and laughed myself silly. I couldn’t remember it either.

  2. Miles says:

    Not read much of Calvin and Hobbes, but I like it whenever I do. If Watterson gave us ideas of what science could be like, Gary Larson told us the real thing could be very absurd.

    Fun read!

  3. epichammy says:

    Tho Calvin and Hobbes may not be the most famous, or the most well-known.
    For those who grew up with it will always remember it has a strip that made as who we are. For better or for worse, it shaped me.
    Until the day I found this strip I guess….

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