Thursday, March 01, 2012

A curious character rides again

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, biographies, graphic novels, physicists

(If you care to read the text in this scan, click on the image.)

On my way to a Geology degree, I studied Physics for a couple years, and found it very discouraging, which is why I switched. A few years later I got a set of The Feynman Lectures on Physics, and really learned the subject. They are recommended reading for anyone who only thinks they can't understand things like special relativity or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. Dick Feynman hated lecturing, but he was the best explainer ever.

I've read a couple of his autobiographies, but that was before I started this blog. I did review his daughter's book about him, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track.

Now two excellent graphic artists, Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick, with help from Hilary Sycamore, have produced a biography of Richard Feynman in "graphic novel", that is hardbound comic book, format: Feynman. A blurb on the cover quotes his mother when she heard that Omni magazine had named him the world's smartest man, "If that's the world's smartest man, God help us."

The book records events not quite in order. It sets the stage by portraying events from 1964, 1923, 1986, 1927 and 1966 (this last his Nobel prize speech at Far Rockaway high school). Then, starting in 1931, carries on mostly chronologically, though there are frequent flash-forwards of three or four frames to a much older Feynman reflecting on those early times.

It has been said that Feynman was a self-caricature, but that designation more aptly fits the last few years of Elvis's life. While Feynman did engage in self-conscious manipulation of his image, he primarily kept his heart on his sleeve. He was defined by his boundless enthusiasm for a broad range of technical subjects—and for drumming and partying—and equally for his ignorance and disdain for most "soft" subjects such as the humanities. Yet at one point, he studied drawing, trading physics lessons for drawing lessons with an artist friend. The skill he developed underlies the famous "Feynman Diagrams" seen in the scan above. Learning to draw convinced him he was a much more visual person than he'd thought.

In one of his autobiographies, he tells of being asked by a reporter to explain what his Nobel prize work was about, and replying, "Buddy, if I could explain it in a minute or two, it wouldn't be worth a Nobel prize." Here we have the more accurate version, from his letters, in which he tells of riding a cab, and telling the cabbie how bothered he was by all the reporters. The cabbie told him, "Say that if you could explain it in three minutes it wouldn't be worth a Nobel prize."

For many Nobel laureates, the Prize comes when their active career is already behind them. Feynman in 1965, at age 47, was just getting going. He kept doing good science, and kept making the occasional headline, as in 1974 with "Cargo Cult Science", but most notably his demonstration of how the O-ring failed in the Challenger disaster of 1986.

After two bouts with cancer, after 1981 he was living on borrowed time. He died in 1988, but the book ends shortly before this, with Feynman and his wife planning one more try to visit Tuva (He'd learned of Tannu Tuva as a stamp collector when he was young. It was swallowed up in one of the Soviet republics after 1944, and has re-arisen as Tyva. It is still one of the hardest places to visit).

A book like this is a quick read. If it were only the reading, you could finish in a couple of hours. But the graphic portrayal entices one to dwell on the page, and enriches the experience. The bibliography was larger than I'd expected. Books by and about Richard Feynman number in the dozens, and many works contain a story or two about him. There have also been PBS and BBC special programs about him. And I almost wrapped up without mentioning his contribution to the Manhattan Project, and the voluminous literature that originated there. I guess, once someone has produced a hardcover comic about you, you've really arrived!

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