By Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick
I love it. But I knew I would. I have Feynman’s books on my shelf, Feynman biographys alongside those. All a Feynman graphic novel biography had to do to make it great in my eyes was to simple tell Feynman’s story, capturing all the genius, the invention, the spirit of the man.
It most definitely does. And it deserves to be widely read, because Ottaviani and Myrick do such a spectacular job of bringing to life the genius that was Richard Feynman, a man and a name well known amongst science folks, but perhaps less so amongst a general readership. Hopefully this beautifully put together graphic novel will change that.
It really felt very apt to be reading Feynman on the day CERN announced that they may (just may) have discovered something that throws everything, absolutely everything about the world, about physics, about the nature of our reality into doubt.
Richard Feynman would have liked that.
Because Richard Feynman exemplified the way science should always be. He was a man who passionately believed that science was the key to understanding the world, and all the beautiful, incredible, fantastical adventures it offered. But he also freely admitteed, indeed he embraced the idea that science was only as good as the latest theory, and the things we couldn’t explain far outnumbered those we could.
Anyone believing in science also believes that the limit to our understanding should be pushed, challenged and often contradicted. Scientific method. Test, check, attempt to disprove. And when science works, it disproves the last theory of scientific fact, and replaces it with the next. This is not a weakness, it is the strongest aspect of science. Question, challenge, think…. just like Feynman.
So when CERN announced that they’ve produced experimental data that seemingly challenges the long held tenet of the impossibility of faster than light travel, the scientists at CERN, instead of declaring this the most important scientific discovery of the age, have practically begged the mass scientific community to come and look at what they’ve done and disprove it, find the mistake. Question, challenge, think.
For those who don’t know; Richard Feynman was one of the greatest minds of any generation. He worked on the Manhattan Project with Oppenheimer and the rest, he created new ways of thinking about the world in his work on Quantum Electro Dynamics (QED). But his real genius was to be more than a scientist. He was a thinker, a dreamer, an imagineer. He had an ability to convey his work, to convey anyone’s ideas in the simplest, purest form.
When the Challenger disaster needed a committee to investigate, it was Feynman who identified the problem and then sat before the cameras to explain the mistakes, the fundamental and simple error that resulted in the tragic loss of life. Others would have talked, would have explained, would have over-complicated. Feynman took one of the offending O-rings and a glass of ice-water and showed, in the simplest, most visual manner just what had caused billions of dollars of spacecraft to explode in the skies above America.
Feynman was a genius. But he was also a man who questioned, who sought to explain and communicate. His passion for understanding never diminished, no matter what strange path it took him down.
This was a man who took up safe-cracking at Los Alamos, breaking into everyone’s safes whilst working on the bomb to end all wars. An artist, a practical joker, a bongo player, a seeker of truth in alll things, a man equally at home in the heady environs of academia or in a downtown strip club where he found he could relax and think more easily. And a man who, when the strip club fell foul of the town council, stood up in court to defend it when others fled the attention.
He epitomised the idea of the trickster, this genius, this man of science, he had something of the Puck about him. He played jokes, he never took himself too seriously, or his science. But this tricker nature was merely a facet of the man, a facet that often disguised the scientist beneath.
There was only one Richard Feynman. Unique. Visionary. Genius.
Which brings me to Ottaviani and Myrick’s Feynman graphic novel. I had to get here eventually after all. You’ll have to forgive the previous few hundred words of ramble. Once I started I just couldn’t stop. Which, not coincidentally is what happened with reading the graphic novel.
Like I said at the start – all Feynman the graphic novel had to do was deliver the essence of the subject, the essence of Feynman, and it would be a huge success in my eyes. And it does. It so does. Reading the graphic novel I knew, more than anything else, that Ottaiani, Myrick and I shared an admiration and a love of the subject, and they got this over on every single page.
It is simply a perfect distillation of everything you need to know about the man. And a very good distillation … it picks and chooses the moments it represents, jumping backwards and forwards in an extraordinarily rich and varied life and by its nature, has to skate over certain times, sometimes a little too quickly. But generally it covers absolutely everything it needs to to deliver what feels a full and rich realisation of one man’s life. So you get everything, from his famous anecdotes, such as this one about the problematic secrecy around the Manhattan Project…
… to page after page of very complex Physics, such as this from his lectures in New Zealand on QED in 1979:
I would imagine a reader experiencing Feynman for the first time would come away just as amazed, just as convinced of the genius, as I brought to the book. But even those of us who are already Feynman devotees will find much to admire and enjoy in Ottaviani’s words and Myrick’s effective and expressive artwork. It casts new light on the topic, capturing the personality of the man, his loves, his passions, his eccentricities, and there’s a certain fitting feeling to seeing Feynman’s complicated ideas presented in comic form – he was very much a visual thinker after all.
Myrick’s artwork captures everything of the ideas Ottaviani collates and gathers from Feynman’s life and works. His representations of Feynman’s science are always interesting, even those times when we’re deep into hard science, such as the fourteen pages of the New Zealand QED lecture. But he’s equally able to convey the more emotional times in Feynman’s life, such as the death of his first wife, Arline, in 1945 from TB:
In the end, I believe Ottaviani and Myrick’s graphic biography works on every level.
It’s another essential work to sit alongside other books by and about Feynman. But the greatest praise I can give is not that it will sit amongst the other works, but that it succeeds iin bringing a new dimension to the many works on Feynman, a visual representation of the man that will move, amaze, entrance and entertain (and please forgive the religious language) neophyte or acolyte alike.