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Review & Roundtable: Feynman

I grew up with a variety of heroes.  Writers like Roald Dahl, Tamora Pierce, Andre Norton, Ray Bradbury, and Susan Cooper led me deep into the world of stories, speculative and wondrous.  Itzhak Perlman, a virtuoso violinist, amazed me by playing so brilliantly with enormous hands.  Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly astounded me with their dancing and choreography.  Carl Sagan glued me to the TV explaining the wonders of the universe in his landmark miniseries Cosmos.

Some people might think that one of these is not like the other — that science doesn’t mix too well with the arts. As a natural writer and artist raised by two physicists, I was never aware of any contradiction.

Jim Ottaviani, Leland Myrick
Ages 12+; Grades 7-Adult
First Second, August 2011, ISBN 978-1-59643-259-8
272 pages, $29.99

My mother, Joan Brenner, is a physics and astronomy professor at Bunker Hill Community College near Boston and impresses me with her quick grasp of all things mathematical as often as she shares her love of art and music.  My father, John Francis Brenner, loves sharing the tiny world of particle physics with his two inquisitive daughters and is a talented writer.  Both are outstanding teachers and love to both ask and answer questions.  Our dinner conversations leap from the latest book I’ve been reading to a nearby art exhibit to just why my Dad thinks the Big Bang theory has some major flaws.  It’d all just part of considering the world at large.

Jim Ottaviani’s latest work, Feynman, is a graphic biograhpy of the Nobel-prize winning Richard Feynman: physicist, prankster, bongo-drum afficianado, and a man bursting with curiosity about all things.  He did a great deal to popularize physics through his lectures available as audio recordings and in book form.  Feynman also related his own adventures in the scientific community and beyond in Surely You’re Joking, My Feynman? and What Do You Care What Other People Think? Ottaviani, working with artist Leland Myrick, has drawn on Feynman’s recollections and his own extensive research to introduce new readers to this charming, enthusiastic genius.  The book presents a well-rounded record.  Feynman got off to an encouraging start in debates with his father and bouncing ideas around with his equally scientifically minded younger sister.  He balanced a restless romantic life, memorably exemplified in his banter-filled first marriage, with a never-ending thirst for understanding that drove his research and academic life.  Even before he got his Ph. D., he was recruited to work with some of the biggest names in science (Neils Bohr and Enrico Fermi, to name but a few) on the Manhattan Project and continued to seek out the most challenging minds in the field.  With trademark insouciance, Feynman dealt with boring stretches on the base by learning to crack safes and decoding encrypted messages from his clever, bedridden wife, much to the military security’s puzzlement and dismay.  Far from just a character study, though, Feynman delves into the scientific puzzles he tackled and clearly visualizes his achievements in quantum physics, understanding that most readers are novices when it comes to the workings of subatomic particles.  A man who once sat down to figure out how to describe how flying plates wobble and later dubiously accepted when he was awarded the Nobel Prize is by definition a character.  The quote on the front of the book, from Feynman’s own mother, is pretty much all the hook you need, “If that’s the world’s smartest man, God help us.”

Richard Feynman was and still is a hero to my parents, and I grew up hearing humorous tales of his pranks while working on the Manhattan Project.  As a teen I read through his collected memoirs, but I was more aware of him as a remarkable character than as a physicist.  When I saw the new biography by Jim Ottaviani was on Feynman, from the always quality publisher First Second, I knew I had an opportunity to tap into my parents’ knowledge as well as share the fun of reading a new work in their company.  Our conversation was as far ranging as usual, with diversions into talking about books, movies (check out Matthew Broderick’s Feynman biopic Infinity), and the latest news about trying to explain gravity and data from the Large Hadron Collider.  The meat of our discussion, though, was this biography, how it worked for both myself and for my parents and how this biography shows Feynman to the wider world.  Along with the 2011 prose biography, Lawrence M. Krauss’s Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, this book might well help to elevate his reputation.

Robin Brenner: I’ve often mentioned Feynman in passing because I think of him as someone people should know, and I find that often people don’t quite know who he is.  People might remember him for explaining the disintegration of the O-rings in the space shuttle Challenger explosion, but they don’t really know why he was important.

I love that Jim Ottaviani has made this a mission in his life — to talk about science in the graphic format for people who may not be willing or able to understand the stories otherwise.

I see this graphic biography as a good introduction to Feynman.  I think it’s good that it is chronological.  At first, I was a little put off by how Ottaviani was identifying every source for every story.  I got distracted by them and thought, “Why do I need to know this in the middle of reading?”  But then I started to realize that that Feynman didn’t tell these stories in a straight line.  The creators are putting this together in a way that is the actual narrative of his life rather than what stories he chose to tell.  If you just read his books, you definitely get a sense of him, but it’s not the same as a biography.  This is a biography.

You guys, of course, introduced me to Feynman.

John Francis Brenner: Did you have any visual picture of him?

RB: I have the picture from the cover of the book, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman?, which had a photograph of him.  I remember thinking his face was very charming.

JFB: That’s maybe a good lead in to one comment that Mom and I have.

Joan Brenner: Yes, the caricature of him doesn’t seem to capture him very well.  I don’t remember him having infinite hair.

RB: I was kind of amused by the hair over the course of the book.

JFB: I think what the artist was trying to do was provide a visual clue.  To me, he picked the wrong one.  To me the most impressive thing about Feynman was his eyebrows.  They were really heavy and they kind of went up and sharply down at the end.  If you get a photograph of him, it’s the eyes that catch your interest.  Along with the sneer!

In some of the pictures, I thought he did really well in terms of capturing Feynman.  At the very end there was a really beautiful preliminary drawing.

RB: When we talked a couple of weeks ago, I had been saying that I hadn’t been loving the art.  But the more I read it, the more I liked the art.  I still expected somehow that his expressions would be eloquent about his sense of humor and the way that he spoke and the way he told stories.  Somehow the art style didn’t work for me that way.

JB: Agreed.

RB: That’s partially my own bias, I always look for people’s faces.

JFB: And with Feynman, he was not a stone face.  You get somebody like, oh, [theoretical physicist and mathematician] Freeman Dyson, his face barely moves.  It’s just the way he is.  But Feynman was extremely animated and there would be a tremendous range of expressions.

RB: The one thing I started to notice toward the middle and the end was the attention to different things that define the character.  His posture was very clear to me throughout the book, and the clothing that he wore, that everybody wore.  I think Myrick followed the right tone.

JB: Feynman was definitely almost a caricature of what professors wore, in that period.

RB: The other thing I will say is that there are a lot of really well done and smart visuals to explain the science that they were talking about.  I would be peering at the science and thinking “Ah, I don’t quite get that.” And then I would look at the pictures and the pictures would help me understand.

JB: One of the things I enjoyed in the book is this attitude that the universe is as it is.  And it’s up to us to figure it out.  And yeah, it’s weird!

RB: And it can’t all be explained by the rules we have.

JB: The current rules, anyway — that’s why we have to keep coming up with new ones!  Maybe it’s never going to be explained.

JFB: I’ve been reading this other book, Seeing Further: The Story of Science, Discovery and the Genius of the Royal Society edited by Bill Bryson, and it’s interesting how this view is not at all unique to Feynman.  He was very vociferous about it and would cuss you out if you didn’t believe it, but it’s interesting to see, in going through the archives and the transactions of the Royal Society Journal, they were seeing that attitude developing over the decades.  At first there was a tendency to think that if the universe didn’t quite fit your model of it, then you weren’t observing it correctly.  And later on they finally came to the conclusion that no, that’s the wrong attitude.  You experiment with it, and if it comes out weird it comes out weird.  You’re stuck with it.

RB: This book reminded me a little bit, in terms of explaining to the general public, of the film version of A Beautiful Mind.  Not the schizophrenia part, obviously, but the ways of explaining game theory and using visual examples.  It’s a way to take something that’s very complicated and very niche and give you a way to think about it that isn’t too hard to understand.  It’s very personable.

The love story between him and his wife, that allows people in.  I loved Arline and the codes and the government being unable to handle the fact that they were doing this letter exchange for fun.  They made such a perfect pair — they were perfect for each other in a very specific way.

JFB: And they had so little time together.

RB: I appreciated through the whole book how they showed that he was certainly a ladies’ man.  Throughout the book there are all these sequences of him being like, “Ooh, that’s an attractive woman…”  It was there very subtly and they never quite said it out loud.  That being said, Arline was the one that synced with him in a way I don’t think he necessarily found again.

And his sister, [astrophysicist] Joan Feynman!  I knew nothing about his support of her and her scientific pursuits.

JB: I didn’t either.  Wasn’t that nice?

RB: I had no idea that he was that supportive of her the whole time.  He clearly never thought women shouldn’t do science or couldn’t do science.  It seems like it never entered his head and that is a wonderful thing to know.

JFB: In the books that I’ve read the story of Arline and all that was very abbreviated.  I kind of imagine that he didn’t want to talk about it.  He squelched it when it came to giving interviews.  Clearly it was an eye-opener for him.  It was scary to find that he had such strong feelings and that he suppressed them completely for a while after she died.

RB: I like how they timed that in this book.  Immediately after she died he was like, “I’m going back to work.”  Then that confession that two years later is when it really hit him.  I’m glad it was included — I thought it made him very human.

My other experience of this place and period comes from Ottaviani’s previous book, Fallout.  I like that they included the flash forward in the book, “Well, obviously you want to hear about the bomb.”  The scientists working at Los Alamos were just so keen on the scientific achievement they that didn’t think too hard about the aftereffects of what they were discovering.  That’s the hardest part of any science you do, especially if it’s for a military purpose or for the government.  You do have to think about where it’s going to lead, how much of that concern is your job.

JFB: The other side of that is the blind eye turned toward the ramifications involving the atomic bomb was that it was a direct response to the Nazis — there’s no question about that.

JB: Hence the letter from Einstein at the beginning of all this.

JFB: I think a lot of people said “I hate to think what this thing is going to do, but if we don’t get it first, we’re going to be screwed.”  So they made a pragmatic decision and decided, “We’re going to do this.”  And turned off their feelings.

There is so much more energy in the atom than can be released by burning.  There’s way more energy in the nucleus than there is in the electron structure, which is involved in burning.  So, one way you demonstrate this energy is by making a big boom.  This was absolutely incredible, that it could release this much energy.

JB: I think we see this from this and from other books — there they were with their suntan lotion and sunglasses not really realizing what they were releasing.

RB: Visually speaking, I thought those pages were great.

JB: Yes, agreed!

RB: The explosion and seeing it.  The whiteness of the flash, the dark blue and the red.  I’ve seen it rendered in other ways, but this was just really well done.  The idea they they were all running around celebrating, going, “Woo!” Sharing the story with everybody.  All of us are thinking, “How could they celebrating!?”  But of course they were!

JB: It worked!

RB: I fear sometimes people think scientists sit in a box somewhere and come up with ideas and it’s all pristine and cold.  This book shows how many personalities it takes to figure things out.  Even just the way you approach a problem becomes a manifestation of your personality.  A moment in here that reminded me greatly of growing up with you guys is the connection between faith and science, especially when you get to the quantum level.  There is no order that makes it automatic or easy to observe.  You need a lot of wild imagination, interest, and curiosity.

JB: There’s the famous story about Einstein, who went around for years wondering, “The speed of light is constant, but what does that mean?”  It takes someone who says, “Why?  What makes it important?”

RB: I loved that whole sequence where Feynman was like, “I’m going to start doing physics for fun.  I’m not going to this to prove anything or make myself a professional.  I’m just going to do it and figure out why this works the way it does just because I want to know.”  That’s what leads to discoveries people don’t expect.

There is also no sense of hierarchy to Feyman.  Just talk plainly or don’t talk at all.  He’s more curious about what you’re talking about than who you are.

JFB: Absolutely.

RB: That’s a really wonderful way to look at how to solve a problem.  You don’t want to get bogged down.  You just have to motor on.  Too often people — we’ve seen examples in science where ego and emotional responses get in the way of things being discovered or things being talked about in the right way.

JFB: Reading this, one of the problems both Mom and I had is that we know too much about Feynman, so it’s hard for me to put myself in the place of someone who doesn’t know anything about him.  My guess is they’d probably miss a great number of the subtleties.

RB: Are there things that you noticed that you think other people wouldn’t?  Things you thought were well done?  References?

JB: One thing that I didn’t pick up on, in this book, is that is in a lot of the things he did, for example, at Los Alamos, were because he was bored with the scene.  And that really doesn’t come through very clearly, like the shenanigans with the safe-cracking.

RB: They have those scenes here, but somehow it didn’t have the same impact as when I read them, and I can’t decide if it’s because I already knew that he did that.

JB: I don’t think that came through quite as clearly.

JFB: I had the same feeling that it didn’t quite come through quite as clearly as reading it.

RB: Do you think it’s the pacing or the writing…?

JFB: No, I think it’s the fact that this is a visual picture and when you talk about safe-cracking and fooling people, it works better in my mind as an imagined thing.  If I can see it happening on a page it just has no life for me.  In a movie, maybe, because then it’s moving.  Then you get to see the reactions of the people in real time.  When Feynman comes in and opens this safe for the administrator, I can imagine the look on the administrator’s face changing from bland amusement to outright shock.

RB: That might be the problem.  If we wanted to see that scene then we wanted to see more of it.  You wanted to see the reaction shots.  That’s something you can definitely do in comics but I don’t think it was done here because they took a shorter amount of time to tell those stories.  It is a very long book.  They chose to cover a lot and there’s a lot in here I didn’t know.

RB: As someone who doesn’t know as much about Feynman, I felt like I respected a lot more what he had done in physics by the end of this book.  I remember him as an interesting character, and I certainly knew he was considered one of the top physicists, but I didn’t really get it until I read it explained here.

JFB: Quantum Electrodynamics (QED).  One of the things on page 123 — you see all those equations?

RB: The calculations?

JFB: Yep — below them are little graphs.  The really big thing about this is that these integrals are incredibly gory, but when you’re done with them, once you’ve done the integrals once, you never have to do them again.  The integrals come out to a number, or a sum.  But to reduce all of this to a simple diagram — that is an absolutely stunning thing.

It’s hard to get more explicit than that without taking a course in physics.  There’s no way someone writing a book like this could explain all the beauty in something like that.  But, that’s the stuff that knocks you over when you talk about Feynman and study QED.  One of the fascinating things is that QED worked out exactly.  It’s one of the rare occasions in that as long as you’re working with electrons, you get the exactly right answer with QED.  These Feynman graphs were so attractive that physicists tried to use them for everything — the physics of the nucleus, where you have nucleons, and of course that didn’t work.  It had to be extraordinarily modified.

Feynman isn’t here any more, so it’s hard to say — maybe he could come up with an equivalent to the Feynman graphs that would work.  String theory constructs — they sound like Feynman graphs in that they’re a flexible model of what’s going on — but they don’t work nearly as well.  With QED he just somehow hit it right on the head.  Nobody’s been able to do that with nuclear physics or particle physics or with gravity.  It’s just a nightmare.

RB: I know you’ve used books like this in the past, Ottaviani’s Fallout for example, for your honors seminar.  And the students react to the format as a way to get the story?

JB: Many of them, yes.  We also used Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossom, and the students absolutely loved that book.

RB: Do you think you would use this?  Is this a good introduction to Feynman?  For someone who doesn’t know him?

JFB: At the level we teach physics, to freshmen, I don’t know.  It might be a bit too scary.  At the honors level, it would work.

RB: Too complicated for the freshmen?

JFB: No, I think it could distract them from what they’re trying to learn.  They’re not learning anything that’s nearly this exotic.

This section with the Feynman graphs is really good, and it’s probably the only part of the book that deals with the hard science in a very transparent way.  It’s incomplete, but making it complete would add 100 pages to the book.  I’m glad he put that in there because it is such an interesting thing, at least to me.  What I don’t know is whether the average reader or maybe even a physics student in freshman year would appreciate this.

RB: There were moments in here when I was reading clearly a lecture, and I’d be like, “OK, I’m not getting this. I’m trying to understand but I’m not getting it.”  But it didn’t matter.  I still sat there thinking, “This is really impressive.”

To me, it’s kind of when I learned to play the violin.  If I heard Vivaldi, I knew that is what you could do if you learned to play the violin really well.  “The Lark Ascending” by Vaughan Williams is a violin piece I might aspire to play.  I think to me that’s what this might be, that if you learn physics, this is the kind of thing you might learn to contend with.  It’s kind of like what you’ve said before, Mom  — everything before calculus is just arithmetic.  Calculus is when it gets interesting.  That always disappointed me because I could never get calculus — my brain just doesn’t work that way!

JB: There are many colleges that have courses what are referred to in the trade as physics for poets. A book like this might be an interesting one for a group like that to read.  It shows how a mind works.

JFB: I might well use it at the end of this elementary physics course I’m teaching now.  The reason is that the first 80 or 90 percent of this two term sequence is classical physics.  The model in everybody’s mind is “billiard ball” physics.  Here is a round ball, and a particle is just a very small ball, and it behaves the same way.  You can go as fast as you want because we never get close to the speed of light.

One of the major things I do at the end of this course is to go, “OK, you’ve all learned all of this according to classical physics.  Guess what?  It’s all wrong.”  This isn’t the correct model of the universe.  It’s only an approximation.  The beauty of this book about Feynman is that it would show the students that they could go beyond what we see in every day life.  You can only do this if you’re willing to take the time to learn the mathematics and thinking that goes behind this,  and understand what science is all about.

RB: One of the things I thought that Feynman was known for is that he was good at teaching physics.  Sagan is the other person I know you loved for his ability to explain science to the hoi polloi, so to speak.

JB: Feynman put together those lectures for freshman in college, and it went pfffft.

RB: Ha!  OK.

JB: It went completely over their heads.

JFB: It didn’t work.  But everybody who graduated in physics loved it.

JB: It is wonderful.  He pulled the logic structure together for everybody.

RB: I hear of them as great examples of lectures on physics.

JB: They are!

RB: But perhaps only for graduate level students, rather than undergrads.

JB: This is something that you tend to see with theoretical physicists.  They can’t come down far enough for freshmen.  Even at a place like Cal Tech or Berkeley, the entering students are still freshmen.

JFB: It’s an example of the fallible Feynman.  He’s clearly made a mistake, and he knows it.  I think he realized the graduate students loved it, and it was still worth doing even if the freshmen didn’t get it.  This is what I struggle with right now — how do I teach students knowing that I can’t exploit all the background that I have.

If Feynman had done a television show, like Carl Sagan, it would have been a disaster.  He would have been too snarky.  Sagan was a marvelous presenter.  Feynman really wasn’t.  Feynman was so adept at discovering and exposing, if you like, of physical laws, but I don’t think he had much teaching in him.  You had to be almost as good as he was to benefit from it.

RB: I really like the whole friendship he had with the artist Jirayr Zorthian, and the fact that they would each push each other to think outside their chosen disciplines.  That’s what I take away from somebody like Feynman.  I like that they show him saying, “I don’t understand art.  I don’t understand what people are talking about when they talk about art.  So why don’t I go find someone who does understand and have them teach me.”  That’s the kind of thing that people should do as often as they can.

JB: About ten years ago, they took a group of people that were teaching poetry and creative writing and had them take some very serious science.  Then they had the scientists study medieval poetry.  It really changed their ability to interact, for both groups.  They basically took a course in the other discipline.  And they did just fine!

RB: I love that this book does come with an extensive bibliography at the end.  And not just Feynman’s books, but a variety of books on the topics discussed.  I don’t know that many people who will think, “I’m going to go pick up a book on quantum physics!” But this might actually make them do that.

JFB: It’s had that effect on me!  I am going to go look and see if I can find the Feynman lectures and re-read them.

RB: We have them at the library!  Where do you think he ranks in the modern groups of physicists?

JB: Everybody hears about Einstein — it’s very hard not to.  People know some of the engineers perhaps more than they know other folks.  Also Watson, of Watson and Crick for DNA.

JFB: Feynman as far as I’m concerned is up there with the top one percent of the physicists that have ever existed.  I don’t think that would come through in the popular press.  He wasn’t a very pleasant character to deal with.  If someone interviewed him, he wouldn’t come across well.  On the other hand, someone like Freeman Dyson, who was almost a deadpan sort of guy, he has a lot of patience.  He had better relations with the press, with authors and interviewers.

JB: Sagan did do some work but it’s not at the level of Feynman.

JFB: Maybe this book isn’t going to create too many high level physicists.  But at least it might get some people to understand what this is about.  One thing that makes my blood boil is how the general population is just plain ignorant of how science is done and why it’s done.  If you get a book like this into that mix, it will help.

Ottaviani’s Feynman is a strong addition to the works already available on this curious character, as he dubbed himself, and here’s hoping the graphic presentation will draw new readers into his innovative, question-driven world.

Robin’s note: I would like to thank my parents, Joan H. Brenner and John F. Brenner, for being willing to join me in reading and discussing this title.  I’ll never get tired of hearing about their take on the universe, and hopefully they’ll never get tired of mine!

Robin Brenner About Robin Brenner

Robin Brenner is Teen Librarian at the Brookline Public Library in Massachusetts. When not tackling programs and reading advice at work, she writes features and reviews for publications including VOYA, Early Word, Library Journal, and Knowledge Quest. She has served on various awards committees, from the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards to the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards. She is the editor-in-chief of the graphic novel review website No Flying No Tights.

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