In the mood for science? Biography? A graphic novel? Then you may want to read Feynman written by Jim Ottaviani and drawn by Leland Myrick. It is a fairly recent publication and will probably find itself ranked up there among the best graphic novels available. Except it isn’t a novel. So what is a graphic novel that isn’t a novel called?
The book is a whirlwind tour of the life and work of Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner in physics and a great teacher and personality. The book begins in 1964 with Feynman giving a lecture to a packed hall, then skips back to 1923 when Feynman was a boy and his dad is reading him a bedtime story. Then we jump ahead to 1986 and back to 1927. But none of this is confusing and all the jumping around serves to show how past influenced future. Then there is a good long stretch in the middle that is chronological with Feynman in high school, falling in love, going off to MIT, and beginning his work on Quantum Electrodynamics Theory (QED). The theory belonged to the scientist Dirac but it wasn’t complete and Feynman wanted to figure out how to fill in the gaps. He filled in some but not all of the gaps, graduated with a Ph.D. and then shelved his work on the theory for awhile because his fiance, soon wife, became ill with tuberculosis and he was asked to go work at Los Alamos during WWII. He was part of the group that created the atomic bomb.
During his time at Los Alamos, he also taught himself how to be a safecracker. His wife died on June 16, 1945. He was grief stricken but instead of mourning her loss, he threw himself into his work. Not until a year later, after the war, when he arrived at Cornell to take up teaching was he finally able to allow himself to cry.
He was unable to produce any new work for quite sometime. One day he decided he just needed to play like he did when he was younger and not worry about whether what he was doing was important or not. So he began trying to figure out the motion of a rotating plate tossed into the air and the wobble that happened in that motion. This led him back to QED. At the same time there were two other men working on solving QED, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga. They all became aware of the work each was doing and while they didn’t actually collaborate, they did work off of each other and between the three of them they completed QED. For this the three of them shared the Nobel Prize in 1965.
Besides a brilliant physicist, Feynman was also a gifted teacher. He was determined to be able to explain QED to people who were not students or physicists. It took him a long time to be able to do it because, as he explained, even physicists didn’t know why QED worked. But he managed to do it in a series of lectures that he first delivered in New Zealand. They have been printed in a book called QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, or, through the magic of the internet, you can watch him deliver the lectures. If you have time for neither, QED is nicely explained– with pictures!– in the graphic novel. It takes work to follow and is kind of mind-bendy, but it is not impossible.
Feynman eventually goes to teach at Cal Tech in California, remarries and has children. After the Challenger exploded in 1986, he was asked to be on the investigative commission. He was the only one who was not afraid to speak out about the O-ring failure and the other issues at NASA that contributed to the disaster. He wrote a separate report of his own because he could not in good conscious sign his name to the report that the commission wrote. A big argument ensued but a compromise was struck and Feynman signed the commission report and his report was placed, in full, in the appendix. When the report was made public, most people did not even talk about the part the commission wrote but went straight to Feynman’s report.
Feynman died in 1988 from cancer. He had a long and distinguished career and was well-loved by friends, colleagues and students.
Graphic form is well-suited to telling Feynman’s life story. Feynman himself was a visual thinker and would often imagine what the math and theories looked like. He drew pictures and diagrams and some of his QED diagrams are included in the book and they are excellent at helping explain the theory. And while the book is excellent, it is made even more top-drawer by the inclusion of an annotated bibliography. And it is great that this was included because believe me, after reading the graphic novel, if you are like me, you will want to find out more and the bibliography provides a fantastic place to start.