| Sunday May 29th 2016

Feynman: A comic biography of an iconoclastic physicist

Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick’s Feynman is an affectionate and inspiring comic biography of the legendary iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman. I’ve reviewed Ottaviani before (I really liked T-Minus, a history of the Apollo program, as well as his Dignifying Science: Stories About Women Scientists) and I expected great things from Feynman. I wasn’t disappointed.

Feynman OttavianiFeynman is primarily concerned with its subject’s life, his personal relationships, his career triumphs, his mistakes and misgivings. From his work on the Trinity project to the Feynman lectures to his Nobel for his theory of Quantum Electrodynamics, Feynman paints a picture of a caring, driven, intelligent, wildly creative scientist who didn’t always think through his actions and sometimes made himself pretty miserable as a result. But the Feynman in this book is resilient and upbeat, and figures out how to bounce back from the worst of life.

Feynman’s technical achievements are mighty, but very few people understand them (Feynman claimed that he didn’t understand them). But the way he conducted his life was often an inspiration. The authors even manage to wring sweetness from his tragic romance with his first wife, Arline, who contracted terminal tuberculosis before they married, meaning that their marriage was conducted without any intimate physical contact lest he catch her sickness, but for all that, they clearly loved each other enormously and made one another’s life better.

Feynman is notorious for his irreverent outlook and his willingness to look foolish while he learned new things, an extremely admirable ability I often wish I possessed in greater measure. The bongo-playing, doodling, pranking Feynman who tried to get out of accepting his Nobel prize and drove Freeman Dyson across the country, staying in flophouses and looking for excitement leaps off the page here.

The authors pass lightly over some of Feynman’s more problematic shortcomings, such as his inconsistent sexist attitude towards women. They show us Feynman gallantly mentoring his sister in physics while all the authority figures in their lives insisted that this wasn’t a fit subject for girls; they show us Feynman working on physics problems five nights a week at a local strip-bar; but they don’t dip into his embarrassing writings on convincing women to have sex with him, in which he comes across as a sexist pig. He was surely a product of his times, and he was surely imperfect, and that explains his attitude, but it doesn’t excuse it.

But this isn’t a whitewash. Imperfect and warty, Feynman is still an inspiration.

The authors don’t shy away from technical subjects entirely, either. They make a really good run at depicting Feynman’s supposedly lay-oriented lectures on Quantum Electrodynamics. To be honest, I’ve never really been able to wrap my head around QED, and, having read Feynman, I’m still pretty fuzzy on the subject — but I feel like I’m a little closer to getting it.

Like all great biography, Feynman is an enticement to read more of his works. I haven’t read The Feynman Lectures (an introductory physics course that Feynman wrote and delivered late in his career — an unheard-of undertaking for a physicist of his stature) in years, but I’m going to start listening to the audio of his lectures. And I’ll be shoving Feynman at everyone I can get to read it.


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