Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Feynman


If you were to offer a teen reader a chance to read the biography of a physicist, how many would bite? Not too many I would suspect. What if you told them it was about a Nobel-Prize winner? Still only a handful?  How about if you told them he was part of the team that helped develop the atomic bomb and later was crucial in discovering the fatal error that caused the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster?  About a scientist who would work out some of his theorems working at a table in a strip club, taught himself to crack safes, and would travel to Brazil and play drums in a samba band...   

And it's told in graphic novel format?  

The joy of reading about the life of physicist Richard Feynman, in any format, is that he was the original out-of-the-box thinker. He retained his child-like sense of wonder and his desire to figure things out and applied them to science the same way that artists and writers apply them to their craft. Following the unconventional and peripatetic life of an unconventional thinker provides an fascinating example of the rewards that come from following your dreams in any field. That Feynman had a sense of humor to match his sense of wonder is a bonus, and despite his preference for research over lecturing he was nonetheless brilliant showman.
The great thing about Feynman is that you don't need to be a science geek or a math whiz to enjoy the book.  Mostly. The story of Richard Feynman's life is told mostly chronological, with occasional sideways diversions, relying primarily on the biographical books he published before he died. The first-person narratives quickly jump into and out of scenes, with the dialog reserved for actual conversations of note. This is an unusual approach for a biography, all these narrative passages describing the action being shown, but here it works. The effect is like watching a home movie or a documentary with the subject serving as the voice-over narrator.

Credit Ottaviani for sorting through Feynman's books and papers to find the simplest way to let the story be told. And it's a huge story that runs nearly 250 pages and only drags toward the end when two of Feynman's lectures are featured and summarized at length. To be honest, some of the physics was lost on me, but the answer to this problem Feynman states earlier in the book and his life. When his younger sister Joan expressed an interest in science, but couldn't understand the books her brother had recommended to her, he instructed her to read the book through and then reread it until eventually it made sense. That's a lot of faith to put into a book, and a reader, but I think it's also a valuable lesson for any reader confronted with difficulty comprehending a text in any field. Given a similar set of instructions for reading e.e. cummings I remember the a-ha! moment I had when I encountered his circular texts, or discovered that the questions that used to haunt me earlier on would be answered later. Feynman's philosophy was to take a problem and keep asking questions until, eventually, a solution began to appear. Logic and reasoning, yes, but also persistence and a certain joy in your work are key.

With a loose illustration style that reminded me of M.K. Brown and a rich color palate that could be called Son of Tintin, Feynman is the sort of serious graphic novel biography that reads like fiction and entertains like a comic book.

Feynman
Written by Jim Ottaviani
Art by Leland Myrick
First Second Books
2011


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