Thursday, October 6, 2011

Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman and quantum electrodynamics in a graphic novel package = YAY! That was my initial reaction, since I've not yet gotten around to reading anything written by Feynman himself and also because I loved Jim Ottaviani's earlier GN treatment of Niels Bohr, Suspended in Language. Not surprisingly (since the quantum physics world is small - ha!) Bohr makes appearances in Feynman too. What surprised me was the difficulty I had engaging with Feynman's life story. At about 100 pages in, I set it down for a couple of weeks, not sure if I would ever finish it.

Either I gave up at exactly the spot where the story picked up (what Feynman did next after he'd finished working on the Manhattan Project atomic bomb) or else I wasn't in the right frame of mind when I lost interest, because I eventually enjoyed the final 150 or so pages.

In 1965, Feynman was asked in a TV news show to explain in a few words what he had won the Nobel prize for. In a taxi afterwards, a cab driver sympathized, "I'da said, 'If I could explain it in three minutes it wouldn't be worth the Nobel prize!"

Parts of Feynman's lectures are presented frame by frame. It didn't bother me that I couldn't understand most of the science as he explains how photons react with electrons. In the audience, students are pictured with thought bubbles ("How can it be?" "I don't like it." "I don't understand.") with words written backwards; words that would be right-way around from the lecturer's point of view. Feynman says, "I can see you saying 'I don't understand.' Tough. I don't understand it either. I don't like it either." 

Feynman used squiggly line diagrams to explain his theories and these translate well to a graphic novel presentation. Leland Myrick's expressive line art keeps the wide cast of characters identifiable. Feynman's unruly, uncombed hair is unmistakable. Colourist Hilary Sycamore has added solid, muted colours to the artwork. It's an attractive book that will appeal to readers who enjoy graphic novel biographies and/or science.

David at The Centered Librarian has posted links to talks by Feynman that are on YouTube with lovely photo imagery. They are divided into three subjects - Beauty, Honours and Creativity - and each one is only 4 or 5 minutes long.

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