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Feynman by Ottaviani and Myrick: A review

Earlier in the year I read and reviewed Laurence Krauss’ biography of Richard Feynman, ‘Quantum Man‘, which focused primarily on some of the key science that Feynman worked on over the course of his career. Feynman is one of the few scientists, along with Einstein, who is capable of selling books based on his life with any form of consistency: he is one of the few really famous scientists. Of course Feynman is probably as famous for his extra-curricular activities as for his science (which, if we are honest, is pretty complicated, and with which he struggled throughout his career to try and describe in terms palatable for the layman), and it this complete disregard to the normal science stereotypes that make him such an endearing figure. It is unsurprising then, that we have a second book about his life published within the space of a year. ‘Feynman‘ by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick takes a slightly different view than is normal, in a very literal sense, as this is a graphic/comic book, giving an overview of Feynman’s life.

If Krauss’ book is very much focussed on the science, this book is a rather more general overview of Feynman’s life, and to some extent the science is sidelined. There is a comprehensive bibliography included and it’s clear if you have read Feynman’s own anecdote recollections that the work draws heavily on these (although there is not much on bongo playing!). I found that, for someone who is quite familiar with this material, this part of the book was interesting (to see it in graphical form) but largely uninspired. In the early parts of the book, the key science that Feynman worked on, moving towards his theory of QED, is glossed over – this isn’t really one for the seriously technically minded.

Later in the book, and in Feynman’s life, I found the material more interesting, and this included stuff that I had either forgotten about , or material that I hadn’t looked at before, and the combination of Feynman’s illness and the final projects (the NASA Space Shuttle panel) he worked on seemed quite poignant.

The part that I found best, and of most interest, was the description of the Alix Mautner Memorial lectures, which Feynman had devised to try and explain QED to his friend Alix Mautner. Sadly she died before he could deliver the final lecture. This part has much of the scientific content of the whole book, and might jar a bit with the rest if you hadn’t been expecting something meatier to start with. The descriptions draw heavily on the outline Feynman gives in his little book QED (which is based on the lectures), but I found this cartoon description to be very illuminating. Obviously they don’t go into as much detail as Feynman did himself, but they give a very clear description of how light can be thought of when reflecting off a mirror, and a good simplified description of his path integral method. The introduction of the Feynman diagrams is perhaps a bit more rushed, and I suspect it might be difficult to follow if you had not had some visibility of them before, but it’s a good effort nonetheless.

This might be your first introduction to the cult of Feynman, and if so, then it I’d suggest it’s a good one. I’m not sure it’s quite as inspiring as reading Feynman’s stories in prose form, but you can get the gist here in a much shorter read, and you get to learn a bit of science along the way. Worth reading for those who know little of Feynman, and those that know a lot, but probably more satisfying for the former.

Finally, one thing that jarred was the image I have of Feynman, both as a young and old man. The drawings of him as an older man chimed well with my mental image, those of him as a younger man didn’t as much, and this was a negative point as far as I was concerned.

I like this trend in science cartoons. I really liked the comic Logicomix about Bertrand Russell (better than ‘Feynman’, I thought) – let’s hope for some more -Einstein next?

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