Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Review: "Feynman"

With his colorful personality and constant propensity to get into all kinds of adventures, Richard Feynman is probably the perfect scientific character to commit to comic book form, so in one way this graphic novel is long due. What is remarkable is how powerfully Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick harness this unique medium to accurately dramatize the life and qualities of this genius. Both authors are uniquely qualified for this endeavor, having already penned graphic portraits of Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer and Leo Szilard.

Ottaviani and Myrick manage to capture the essential characteristics that made Feynman such a cherished teacher, scientist, friend, colleague, and public personality. Most importantly, the book succeeds in vividly bringing out Feynman's quintessential quality of almost obsessively staking out his own iconoclastic path both in science and in life. The biography is really a memoir akin to "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" since it features Feynman's own account of his life, work and intellectual development. The great strength of the book is that it uses close-ups and color to highlight key words and moments from Feynman's life. While the biographical information in the book has been covered in other works and most notably in Feynman's own memoirs, the comic book form has a very different impact because of the combined literary-visual effect it has on the viewer.

For instance, in describing Feynman's time at Los Alamos, one can actually see people's bewildered faces as they struggled to comprehend both his genius in solving intractable physics problems and his wildly successful attempts at safe-breaking. There are evocative close-ups of Feynman's father teaching him to appreciate and truly understand nature during walks in the park, of Feynman encouraging his sister to learn science and his wonderful and tragic relationship with his first wife. Also included are Feynman's strip-club forays (during which he solved physics problems), his famous dunking of the Challenger space shuttle's O-rings into a glass of cold water to demonstrate their failure (again rendered much more dramatic by the graphic medium) and some fairly detailed albeit brief discussions of his pioneering work in quantum mechanics.

I was especially convinced of the power of the graphic form during the parts dealing with Feynman's lectures about scientific wonder and humility. As he paced the podium at Caltech and stressed the importance of holding oneself to an absolute standard of integrity, successive panels of the book zoomed in on his face. This device which is commonly employed in comic books imparts a heightened sense of importance to the words in a way that would not be evident on simply reading them. The other idea used in the comic medium is to intersperse the narrative with divergent panels; for instance, Feynman's eloquent description of science as a great game of chess intersects with snapshots of a chess game played by two people in a park where his father has taken him for a walk.

The minor gripe I have with this comic account is that the faces of different characters are sometimes not easily distinguishable. In addition the narrative would have had a bigger impact if the characters resembled their real life counterparts. But these minor points detract little from the volume's novelty. Ottaviani and Myrick have done a wonderful job in making a unique scientist and human being come alive in these pages. With the mountains of literature written about Feynman one would think that there's nothing new that could be said or done. But this "dramatic picture" of Richard Feynman, as his friend Freeman Dyson calls it, will occupy a proud place on the shelves of Feynman fans. Knowing his fondness for fun, Dick would undoubtedly have approved.



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