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Curious and comic: A physicist’s life in a graphic novel

Richard Feynman’s life was turned into a cool comic book in 2001 by Jim Ottaviani, a former nuclear physicist himself, and Leland Myrick. See what makes it so special...

more lifestyle Updated: May 13, 2018 09:29 IST
Sukumar Ranganathan
Sukumar Ranganathan
Hindustan Times
Comic book,Feynman,Physics
The cover of Feynman, a graphic novel on the Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

Richard Feynman, physicist, safe-breaker, prankster, seducer of women, prize-winning linguist, artist, member of the Manhattan Project and of a Brazilian samba band, and winner of a Nobel Prize, made physics cool. Generations of nerds, starting with my own, have sworn by Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character (it was published in 1985, when I was in high school).

In Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick’s retelling of Feynman’s story, the physicist is presented as a man who never really grew up. It doesn’t gloss over his womanising.

It is somewhat apt that the best book I have read on Feynman, whose centenary falls this month (he was born on May 11, 1918) is Feynman, a graphic novel by Jim Ottaviani (the writer, a former nuclear physicist himself) and Leland Myrick. Feynman made physics accessible, like few others before him (and few others after him) have. His lectures on physics and talks, still popular online, are a lesson on how to explain complex issues simply. The closest anyone has come to doing this is perhaps the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, whose Seven Brief Lessons on Physics is a must for anyone who wants to sound knowledgeable about Physics without really being so. What better way to tell the story of the life and work of the legendary physicist then, than a graphic novel.

A graphic novel is just a comic book trying to sound all grown up. And as evident from its retelling of Feynman’s story, here is a man who never really grew up. I remember having an epiphany about the true nature of genius the first time I read Ottaviani and Myrick’s book (published by First Second) in 2011; that was at a time when I was still writing a weekly column on graphic novels for a newspaper.

Richard Feynman’s own greatness, as the novel suggests, seem to have had very little effect on him. He continued to ask questions, play the bongo (the famous “orange juice” song would sometimes be pulled out after lectures) and have fun.

Feynman is a straightforward retelling of the physicist’s life, including a brief (and graphical) explanation of QED or Quantum Electro Dynamics (those interested in more detail may invest in Feynman’s own QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter), the work for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1965 (along with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, and Julian Schwinger; all three worked on the subject independently). Ottaviani and Myrick’s treatment of some of the basics of QED reinforce my belief that science, especially complex science, is best taught through comics. The book tracks his life through school, MIT, Princeton, his work on the Manhattan Project, Cornell, and Caltech. From Neils Bohr to Albert Einstein to Robert Oppenheimer, a succession of the 20th century’s greatest physicists make an appearance as minor characters in Feynman, but his association with them, and his own greatness, seem to have very little effect on Feynman, who continued to ask questions, play the bongo (the famous “orange juice” song would sometimes be pulled out after lectures) and have fun.

He died in 1988.

First Published: May 12, 2018 20:13 IST