“Surely You’re Comics, Mr. Feynman!”

In many ways, the reverence for Richard Feynman within the physics community is nearly as great as the reverence held for Albert Einstein in society as a whole. He was a larger-than-life figure in many respects, a towering intellect and an eccentric person who really did seem to do things his way or not at all. He preferred to obtain results himself rather than trusting other people – an often admirable but sometimes arrogant trait. There’s no denying his influence in modern particle physics, and in physics education through his lecture notes.

He’s also an ambiguous figure in many ways, at least to me. He was quickly dismissive of a lot of things others did, if they didn’t interest him. While he could speak eloquently about the beauty of the universe, he didn’t have any patience with literature and very little more with art. He could behave very badly toward women, and although he encouraged his sister’s career in science and treated his (unfortunately few) female colleagues with respect, he could also be a womanizer and a lech. Though he is hailed as one of the greatest teachers of physics, I defy anyone to use his lecture notes for their intended purpose in freshman introductory physics effectively: though they are excellent, they are very advanced and require a lot of run-up for your average student. (I think of them as “general physics for graduate students”, and they are some of the best reference material for people who already have some familiarity with the subject.) In other words, Feynman is a human being, with all the complexity that entails.

A lot of this comes through in Feynman, the recent biography in comics form, written and illustrated by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick. Certainly the brilliance of Feynman shines in the book, and the authors (for lack of a better term in this context) draw on some of the best episodes from his busy life in science. There are moments when they come close to creating something comics should be good at, but as far as I can tell haven’t yet achieved: a true scientific biography. (See also Logicomix by Doxiadis, Papadimitriou, Papadatos , and Di Donna, which approaches being a philosophical-scientific biography of Bertrand Russell.) That Ottaviani and Myrick fall short doesn’t reflect badly on them, since they didn’t seem to have that goal in mind; James Gleick’s excellent Feynman biography Genius also isn’t primarily a scientific biography, either.

Feynman is very good on the balance, and I recommend it highly. However, let me start with the bad before getting to the good stuff. First: I frequently found the art to be distracting, since the characters are almost universally ugly and drawn nearly identically. With exceptions like Einstein (with his mustache) and one or two others, the men all look alike, so I found myself flipping pages to remember which character was wearing what color sport coat in a scene, since that is often their only distinguishing characteristic. The women if anything fare worse under this treatment, and since many of them aren’t actually named, they are nothing but interchangeable stand-ins where real people should be.

My second problem is less serious, but one I think readers should be aware of: Ottaviani and Myrick base a lot of their book on Feynman’s own writings (especially the quasi-memoir books Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?). In his own work, Feynman mocks (not always gently) his colleagues, and while he makes fun of himself too a bit, he can come off as being the only smart one in the room. A lot of the rougher edges of Feynman’s personality are ignored or downplayed (his affairs with undergraduates or the wives of his graduate students, for example, which don’t place him in a good light). In a way, it’s Feynman’s version of himself translated to comics form, and where his own memoirs are good, so is Feynman. If you treat the “Feynman” narrator as an unreliable one (as we must all be when telling our own stories), it’s easier to forgive the sins of omission. Knowing these flaws helps keep perspective; supplementing Feynman with another biography, such as Gleick’s, will fill the gaps.

Having said that, I truly do appreciate the Feynman-as-narrator approach. He mostly couldn’t be bothered to write (his memoir essays were dictated or tape-recorded, and his lecture notes were transcribed by people in the classroom), but he spoke well, so making his words the binding of the narrative is an effective and well-chosen approach. Where Feynman shines is when Ottaviani and Myrick use the visuals-plus-words of comics effectively. Their scenes of Feynman explaining quantum electrodynamics (QED), based on Feynman’s public lectures, are to me especially good. I appreciated the way the book moved through time and place, shifting back and forth in perspective to help us understand the man and his world. Readers can learn a lot both about Feynman as a human being and as a scientist, and if this book is your introduction to him, I think you’ll find yourself rightfully impressed. Feynman was a charming man by most accounts, and that shines through in this comic.

Where Feynman was greatest as a scientist was his determination to fully understand (which is why I find his famous quote about not trying to understand quantum mechanics frustrating). He knew, as good teachers must, that if you can’t explain something to others, you don’t comprehend it yourself. the scenes in Feynman where he lectures or tutors others are especially great, as they should be. Path integrals and Feynman diagrams don’t just make appearances: they star in one extended sequence, and provide insight not just into the scientist-as-teacher but his science, which many physicists learn and use regularly today. I took several quantum field theory classes in graduate school that used Feynman’s path integrals and diagrams, and have taught path integration in my quantum mechanics course to undergraduates. It’s essential stuff, and this book will help nonscientists grasp how it works, as well as remind us all why Feynman is still an important figure today.

(I offer a big “Thank you!” to Double X Science editor-in-chief Emily Willingham, who acquired this book for me.)


1 Response to ““Surely You’re Comics, Mr. Feynman!””

  1. 1 Prelude to Feynman Diagrams « Galileo's Pendulum Trackback on December 15, 2011 at 19:02
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