Feynman

Feynman by Jim OttavianiAlthough it offers an engaging story of a life of scientific discovery, I found Feynman to be a frustrating book. Not because it’s about particle physics and quantum electrodynamics (QED) and other things I don’t understand; on the contrary, I think it was frustrating because it wasn’t about QED enough. This biography of Richard Feynman — Nobel Laureate and one of the best-known physicists of the 20th Century — is written by Jim Ottaviani, who has authored several beloved graphic novels about the history of science including Fallout, Dignifying Science, and Two-Fisted Science! Here though, it is not the science that’s front and center, but the scientist. This is Feynman’s book, through and through.

Feynman was not your average physics genius. He was obsessed with art, beauty, and bongo drums. He made huge contributions to the fields of computing and theoretical physics. He worked on The Manhattan Project and recovery after the Challenger tragedy. He was also a prankster who enjoyed cracking his colleagues’ safes and leaving them teasing notes.

That is what I learned from reading this book. What I didn’t learn was how he made any of his discoveries, what his work meant, or really anything else to expand my own (admittedly dismal) understanding of physics. The book told me that Feynman had a huge impact, but I didn’t walk away knowing why. Ottaviani provides very little context — the audience is expected to know what things like the Manhattan Project and Challenger are — and I imagine that many younger readers are going to be left in the dust. Additionally, because the book is so grounded in Feynman’s experiences, we don’t learn what became of these projects after he left them, or about the conclusions and repercussions of his work. The story shows us Feynman skipping off to his next project while somewhere across the world atomic bombs are exploding.

This isn’t to say that there’s nothing to take from the book. Even if we don’t get a lot of Feynman’s science, what we do get is a wonderful look at Feynman the person. He was a fascinating character full of intellect, compassion, curiosity, and appreciation for the world around him. He possessed a desire to understand everything, and strove throughout his life to inspire that desire in others. Indeed he released several books and lecture series aimed at opening physics up to the general public. Ottaviani does a great job expressing that infectious joy through the story, and Leland Myrick’s loose line work and great eye for body language (coupled by bright, crisp colors by Hilary Sycamore) infuse everything with an energy that enlivens even relatively static scenes of people lecturing or sitting at desks.

It was difficult for me to read this and not think of 2009’s Logicomix: An Epic Search for the Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis. That book, a biography of Bertrand Russell, managed to plum the history and the psyche of the man, brilliantly use the comics form to illustrate his ideas about the foundations of mathematics, AND offer a metacriticism by the authors on the creation of the book itself. It is an incredibly full and intellectually stimulating read, and the comparison makes Feynman’s shortcomings glaring. I appreciate that comparing this book to something else might not be entirely fair, but given Feynman the man’s own aforementioned urge to make science accessible to the layman, it’s ironic that that is the place where Feynman the biography falls short.

Feynman
by Jim Ottaviani
Art by Leland Myrick
ISBN: 978-159643259
First Second, 2011