The Genius, the Writer and the Artist: A Review of the Graphic Novel Feynman

In the interest of full disclosure, let me start by saying I’m a big fan of both Richard Feynman and Jim Ottaviani. Feynman was the Nobel Prize winning physicist, known for his transcendent genius, his talent for cutting to the chase and his infamous, trickster-like sense of humor. Jim Ottaviani is the former nuclear engineer and current comic-book author of Two-Fisted Science: Stories About Scientists, Dignifying Science: Stories About Women Scientists, and Bone Sharps, Cowboys and Thunder Lizards: A Tale of Edward Drinker Cope. When I first heard that Ottaviani was working on a graphic-novel about Feynman, a thrill went up and down my spine. The thought of one of my favorite authors doing a book about one of my favorite scientists gave me an almost unbearable sense of anticipation. I was not disappointed.

In Feynman, Ottaviani joins forces with artist Leland Merick to recount the great scientist’s life. Merick’s simple, stripped down artistic style provides a nice compliment to Ottaviani’s straight forward story telling. The combination works and nicely accentuates Feynman’s own gift for capturing some of the universe’s most complex questions with candor and sparkling clarity.

The graphic novel (Is it still a graphic novel if it’s a non-fiction biography?) starts out with Feynman where he is at his absolute best, in front of an audience of adoring physics students, explaining nature’s mysteries. From there, it bounces back and forth between the various high points and low points of his life like some ephemeral quantum particle. What could be more appropriate. Along the way, we are treated to Feynman’s early life, exploring his childhood fascination with science and math, and his education where he struggles and ultimately masters the complexities of quantum physics and human interactions.

Readers are also given an intimate view of Feynman’s personal life, including his passionate, but all too brief love affair with his first wife, Arline. The tenderness and complexity of their relationship was a high point for me. Another high point was the recollection of Feynman’s years as wunderkind and clown prince of the Manhattan Project. This includes his tireless work on the world’s first atomic bomb, and his incorrigible antics and practical jokes, notably his self-taught talent for cracking the base’s most secure safes. This was only the beginning of a lifelong career earning the admiration of his peers and the ire of his superiors.

Ottaviani and Myrick also illustrate the science behind the man. Using Feynman’s own word they explore his life’s work, including the groundbreaking development of what came to be known as the Feynman diagrams and his work on the creation of Quantum Electro-Dynamics ((QED) that earned him the Nobel Prize. At first, some of these explorations might seem daunting to the uninitiated, but with a little patience, the reader will be rewarded with a better understanding of some truly wonderful physics. As Feynman himself put it when asked to give a 2 minute simplified explanation of his theory, “If I could explain it in 2 minutes, it wouldn’t be worth winning the Nobel Prize for.”

My only disappointment with the graphic novel is that there is very little new here. As amusing and insightful as the episodes are, they can be found in James Gleick’s biography of Feynman, Genius. Better yet, curious readers can find many of them written by Feynman himself in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and Six Easy Pieces. Ultimately, though, the graphic novel isn’t intended to be the authoritative work on such a complex figure. Rather, it serves as an introduction. It wets the appetite of those who may not be familiar with Feynman and his world of quantum physics. If it inspires them to further explore his life and work by reading further, then it has accomplished much and paid worthy tribute to one of the most remarkable, most infuriating, most inspiring scientist of the 20th century.

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