Reading Diary: Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

Nov 21 2011 Published by under book review, culture of science, physics, science books

I like to think I'm developing a little niche here on Confessions of a Science Librarian, at least as far as some of my book reviews. And I like to think that niche is reviewing science-oriented graphic novels. And I've reviewed a few over the past couple of years. Logicomix (review), Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth (review) and The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA (review).

And now the amazing new graphic novel Feynman, written by Jim Ottaviani and art by Leland Myrick. (Colours by Hilary Sycamore).

Now when I first heard about this new biography of Richard Feynman in the media, I was quite interested in it. However, some of the early reviews I saw complained about it being a little too dry, a bit boring even, maybe with a bit too much science content. So I hesitated. Then an opportunity presented itself to get a copy for review from the publisher and I seized it. What the heck, how bad could it be?

Not bad at all, really, in fact it is quite terrific. The early reviewers were actually pretty off base with this one.

Now I was pretty familiar already with the details of Feynman's life, having read James Gleick's bio and a collection of Feynman's short essays. Raised in New York, worked on the Manhattan project during WWII, his time at Princeton and then Caltech, the Challenger inquiry, the Nobel Prize. Not to mention the personal quirks and oddities.

So perhaps the more you know about Feynman's life the better you'll like this particular biography. It does cover the basic biographical details quite well, if a bit superficially.

But what I really liked about this graphic novel isn't its attention to biographical minutiae, it's the way it captures Feynman's personality very well by using Feynman's own voice, his own words to tell the story. It's in those words that we find his vitality, his verve, his humour, his irreverence. And his seriousness about science and his insane and quite remarkable creativity. And there's a good bibliography at the end, to boot. The librarian in me always loves one of those.

And speaking of science and personality, there are a couple of quotes that really showcase Feynman's personality and his approach to science.

On page 202 he says to a lecture audience,

The thing that's exciting about this is that nature is strange...

I'm not going to simplify it. I'm going to tell you what it really is like and I hope you accept nature as she is -- absurd.

You don't like it? Go find another universe!

And on page 127-128, to Freeman Dyson,

The power of mathematics is terrifying and too many physicists give up trying to understand their equations. Well, I want to understand them. We claim they're simple, but you can't explain the fundamental laws of nature to a high school student. In what sense are they simple -- because we can write them in one line of math? But Ph.D. or no Ph.D., it took you and me a lotta years of college to understand the symbols.

So, are there any simple ideas?

...And I say nature does whatever it likes.

Like I said, great book. Feynman's life is a great story and it's told here with great wit and personality. I recommend this book without hesitation to every reader interested in science or the history of science. It would make a great gift.

As for libraries, it would fit great in any middle school or high school library as well as any public library of any size. Academic libraries that collect graphic novels should acquire it and probably any that tries to collect in the history of science or physics, although perhaps the book isn't academic or analytical enough for those types of collections.

So, publishers out there, if you have a sciencey graphic novel you're coming out with, drop me a line at jdupuis at yorku dot ca.

And by the way, my son Sam reviewed the book as well here.

Ottaviani, Jim and Leland Meyrick. Feynman. New York: First Second, 2011. 272pp. ISBN-13: 978-1596432598

(Copy supplied by publisher)

(And one more thing, something that drives me crazy in advertising, movies, comics and tv shows. You know how they always use chess-playing characters as a sign of intelligence and then have the chessboard they're playing set up wrong? You know, white square on the right and all that. Yeah, on page 7 the artist has the chessboard set up wrong, with the black square on the right of the players. Sigh. Really, I think Feynman knew how to set up a chessboard.)

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