Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

I have a confession to make: I’m a terrible reader. I don’t mean I’m bad at doing it, just bad about getting around to doing it—if that makes any sense. As a skeptic and science enthusiast, I haven’t read half the books I should have. I tend to absorb all my information in the form of podcasts, lectures, blogs, and more recently, comic books.

I say more recently because there aren’t a whole lot out there (if you know of any, please let us know in the comments!). The go-to example is usually Logicomix, a biographical piece about logician and atheist Bertrand Russell and his writing of his Principia Mathematica. It sort of paved the way for popular comics about famous scientific figures, and now we are starting to reap the fruits of science based comics. It was one of my inspirations to start my own comic, after reading it and realizing how much easier it for me to absorb concepts when they’re presented visually. I went forward presuming that many others feel the same way.

Fast forward to this May, where through a connection, I managed to obtain an advanced copy of Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick’s graphic novel—aptly named, Feynman—about the eponymous late physicist. Being as terrible as I am, I had not read the famous prose biography for which this article is titled, and so I eagerly grabbed up a copy to get the full doodled scoop on this brilliant man. I just wanted to give a special thanks to fellow skeptic-artist, and MAL frequenter, Quarksparrow. Had she not e-mailed us about the book, I would have completely forgotten about reviewing it (a journalistic fail on my part). Thanks!

Richard Feynman(1918-1988), in some circles, is more famous for his eccentricity and his hand in science communication than for his scientific accomplishments (which are nothing to scoff at). Understandably, it’s his more humorous anecdotes that people tend the share. Feynman, too, focuses mostly on these eccentricities by walking us through the man’s life and his relationships with the various geniuses and polymaths he influenced along the way. So when you read Feynman, you not only learn about Richard, but about other monumental figures in science, particularly those involved in the creation of the atom bomb. This approach not only serves to introduce you to a wide range of contemporaries, but presents Feynman’s life in a way that makes it easy for a beginning reader to grasp. It provides a human angle, and points out that science is rarely a solitary endeavor. To write a story that does not include other visionaries such as Freeman Dyson or Shinichiro Tomonaga would be careless.

The art in the book is simple and modern in styling, which is in vogue for independent comic books these days. The style meshes well in Feynman due to the man’s proclivity towards the absurd, and I couldn’t see him throwing plates in the air in any other form. While the style portrays him well as a living cartoon character, it does not fail the narrative when serious moments arise. In short it mixes playful lines with precise minimalism that is both charming and engaging without bombarding the reader with details. The colors, by Hilary Sycamore, complement the artwork well, and provide much needed thematic reference for the story. Her palettes are well chosen, and anchor you in both time periods and locations throughout Feynman’s well-traveled life.

Feynman was a joy to read and is very appropriate for a budding science enthusiast. While the science isn’t center stage, it is hardly ignored as most of his life centered around his work in quantum electrodynamics (QED) and the Dirac equation. For those itching for some good physics, the book includes a great illustrated primer of his famous QED lecture series, written for a friend who challenged him to explain it in a way she could understand. For somebody who knows Feynman front to back, the book may not have much for you other than a visual retelling of his life as the authors cite many of his biographies and lecture collections as source material. Until I get around to reading the many tomes about this essential figure in science, I can see this book being my at-hand reference book when I just can’t quite figure out Feynman diagrams.

Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick is published by Macmillan, and is now on sale wherever books are sold.





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Maki Naro is an artist, incurable geek, and lover of cooking, public radio, small animals, and Blade Runner.
He comprises one half of the Sci-ence Webcomic's dynamic duo.

1 Comment

  1. September 1, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    Well! I’m just gonna have to pick this up! It sounds really interesting and I could use a good primer on Feynman.

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