Feynman: comic biography of an iconoclastic physicist

By Cory Doctorow

Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick's Feynman is an affectionate and inspiring comic biography of the legendary iconoclastic physicist Richard Feynman. I've reviewed Ottaviani before (I really liked T-Minus, a history of the Apollo program, as well as his Dignifying Science: Stories About Women Scientists) and I expected great things from Feynman. I wasn't disappointed.

Feynman is primarily concerned with its subject's life -- his personal relationships, his career triumphs, his mistakes and misgivings. From his work on the Trinity project to the Feynman lectures to his Nobel for his theory of Quantum Electrodynamics, Feynman paints a picture of a caring, driven, intelligent, wildly creative scientist who didn't always think through his actions and sometimes made himself pretty miserable as a result. But the Feynman in this book is resilient and upbeat, and figures out how to bounce back from the worst of life.

Feynman's technical achievements are mighty, but very few people understand them (Feynman claimed that he didn't understand them). But the way he conducted his life was often an inspiration. The authors even manage to wring sweetness from his tragic romance with his first wife, Arline, who contracted terminal tuberculosis before they married, meaning that their marriage was conducted without any intimate physical contact lest he catch her sickness -- but for all that, they clearly loved each other enormously and made one another's lives better.

Feynman is notorious for his irreverent outlook and his willingness to look foolish while he learned new things, an extremely admirable ability I often wish I possessed in greater measure. The bongo-playing, doodling, pranking Feynman who tried to get out of accepting his Nobel prize and drove Freeman Dyson across the country, staying in flophouses and looking for excitement leaps off the page here.

The authors pass lightly over some of Feynman's more problematic shortcomings, such as his inconsistent sexist attitude towards women. They show us Feynman gallantly mentoring his sister in physics while all the authority figures in their lives insisted that this wasn't a fit subject for girls; they show us Feynman working on physics problems five nights a week at a local strip-bar; but they don't dip into his embarrassing writings on convincing women to have sex with him, in which he comes across as a sexist pig. He was surely a product of his times, and he was surely imperfect, and that explains his attitude, but it doesn't excuse it.

But this isn't a whitewash. Imperfect and warty, Feynman is still an inspiration.

The authors don't shy away from technical subjects entirely, either. They make a really good run at depicting Feynman's supposedly lay-oriented lectures on Quantum Electrodynamics. To be honest, I've never really been able to wrap my head around QED, and, having read Feynman, I'm still pretty fuzzy on the subject -- but I feel like I'm a little closer to getting it.

Like all great biography, Feynman is an enticement to read more of his works. I haven't read The Feynman Lectures (an introductory physics course that Feynman wrote and delivered late in his career -- an unheard-of undertaking for a physicist of his stature) in years, but Igoing to start listening to the audio of his lectures. And I'll be shoving Feynman at everyone I can get to read it.


Published 6:01 am Tue, Aug 30, 2011

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About the Author

I write books. My latest are: a YA graphic novel called In Real Life (with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet called Information Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age (with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel called Homeland (it's the sequel to Little Brother). I speak all over the place and I tweet and tumble, too.

27 Responses to “Feynman: comic biography of an iconoclastic physicist”

  1. Moriarty says:

    “If you could explain it in one chapter of a graphic novel, it wouldn’t be worth a Nobel Prize.”

  2. Ryan Carroll says:

    i love hearing about Richard Feynman’s life. It is interesting thanks :)

  3. fraac says:

    “such as his inconsistent sexist attitude towards women”

    Nobody has inconsistencies. If you think they do it just means your model of them is flawed. Something I like to remind people is that the people you like aren’t good people, they’re just the people you like.

    edit: I’ve just read the bar chat and you could easily see it as Feynman learning and successfully applying his friend’s system to get girls without any judgement, except the part where he implies whores are bad. Some of my best friends are whores. But if the anecdote had the point of showing him learning, even that line is useful. Does that help you sleep, Cor?

  4. Jonathan Badger says:

    Yet another piece of Feynmania I guess. I’ve always been annoyed that the public interest in scientists seems largely based on how strange they were when they weren’t working. Yes, Feynman was a great Nobel-laureate and all, but there are dozens of equally impressive scientists who weren’t wacky eccentrics that public doesn’t hear about. But maybe it isn’t just limited to scientists. Nobody seems to want to hear about the majority of artists who were well adjusted either.

    • fraac says:

      My interest in Feynman (whose autobiograpies I own but haven’t read) is due to his ability to seamlessly slide his focus from quantum to galactic without jumping off the rollercoaster tracks, while traveling apace, which shows that he really grasped what he was talking about. I found myself dizzy watching his famous lecture series, in a good way. Because of the power of his modelling ability and the simplicity with which he could present ideas, I learned stuff.

      Going to strip bars and unicycling and stuff are fun things that normal people do. I think that’s why he’s popular, because he *didn’t* live in austerity like a Scientist.

    • Br.Bill says:

      Everyone’s a wacky eccentric. Everyone.

  5. Ricardo says:

    Re: his perceived misogyny: Let’s see. A socially inept intellectual trying to ply his sexuality in a bar full of drunks – a strip club, no less.
    I’m not particularly shocked. Not that I would be proud of acting/behaving that way, but as the poster said, he was a product of his times and given the respective culture depicted therein (in that bio), he was approaching these unhealthy sexual relationships as a sort of scientist, albeit in a very sexist way, I’ll grant that.
    I hate to say it, but a lot of the sentiments conveyed by him in those stories are sort of how a lot of (sexually immature) men think unconsciously, the unspoken capitalism of sexual relationships.
    I like to think everyone grows out of that, eventually, but see that few do.

    • Eoin Norris says:

      Why do you think he was socially inept? He was very personable, and could command a stage for an hour and leave people enthralled. He also did good television. He got together with a lot of women, consensually,  prior to settling down ( with a woman more than a decade younger). No idea where the sexual immaturity claim comes from, unless the assumption is that he was a scientist so he much be. 

      • Sekino says:

        Did you read Cory’s link to the ‘bar pick-up’ story? It drips of sexual immaturity.

        I don’t know how old Feynman was in the account (possibly college-age) so this sexual immaturity could very well have been linked to youth and a lack of life experience with the opposite sex. It is very possible that he outgrew it as he got older and more educated on such matters.

        That said, I agree that it is a tired stereotype that scientists are any more likely to be socially inept. I mean, are sports jocks more socially skilled? They may hang out in crowded pubs more, but that says nothing of the quality or depth of their relationships…

      • Ricardo says:

         I probably should’ve said sexually inept, but the two go hand-in-hand in my opinion. A socially adept person wouldn’t have to question how to or obsess over getting laid, past, say 19 years old or so.

  6. Robert Goldman says:

    The audio link is a huge disappointment.  20 volumes of cassettes.  :-(  Please, the publishers should make this available for purchase as MP3….  This is practically propaganda for the Pirate Party….

  7. Allen Knutson says:

    Cory, check out Feynman’s book “QED”. It’s really lovely. Of course, if you can wade into his Lectures, that’s good too, but QED is better bedtime reading.

  8. Sarah Anderson says:

    I’ve never had the time to get through the “red book” lectures.  Someday.
    But I second the suggestion to read the short “QED” book.  It’s a lovely, lovely layman’s explanation of quantum electrodynamics.   Not easy reading, but doesn’t require a lot of math.

  9. bfarn says:

    Feynman was always a hero of mine growing up, until I really thought about that whole atomic bomb thing.  Since then I’ve been conflicted.  Yes, he couldn’t help the draw of fascinating physics research, yes we had to get the bomb before the fuhrer, yes it was his patriotic duty and all.  But all the same it’s a bit stomach-churning to read about his office pranks or the feelings he had for his ill wife while he’s busy prepping for Hiroshima.

    • NelC says:

      You read about his breakdown, when he was in Manhattan and worked out the effects that an atomic bomb would have if it exploded where he was standing later on, though, right? He was not a consciousless monster, he was a young man caught up in a war and the excitement of cutting-edge physics and engineering.

      • bfarn says:

        I did read that bit.  Like I said, I’m conflicted.  It’s a nuanced issue – but at the heart of that issue is the goddamned atomic bomb!

        I still think he’s an amazing guy and worth listening to, even studying.  It just always amazes me when otherwise compassionate people so readily brush aside the genocide angle.

        • NelC says:

          I have some sympathy, but you can hate nuclear weapons, and make up your mind about Feynman as two near-separate things. Feynman worked on the Bomb, but so did a lot of people, for what they considered to be the good reason of winning the war against Japan. Because when you’re in a global war, that’s what you tend to concentrate on.

          During the war nobody had any very good idea of what was going to happen afterwards, the whole Cold War, MAD, Dr Strangelove scenario just wasn’t predictable in detail. Putting the burden of responsibility for that whole insanity on Feynman or Openheimer or Teller because they were there at the beginning isn’t just; there were many, many others who made the decisions that led to and perpetuated that.

          After the war, Oppenheimer became a pacifist; Feynman had a nervous breakdown and went off to become a bongo-playing Nobel physicist; and Teller developed the ‘Super’, the hydrogen bomb, and carried on working in the field of nuclear weaponry for decades. Yeah, hate Teller if you like, I’d say he deserves it.

        • blurgh says:

          “I did read that bit.  Like I said, I’m conflicted.  It’s a nuanced issue – but at the heart of that issue is the goddamned atomic bomb!”
          They were in the middle of a dirty great war with the *Nazis*, who were developing their own atomic weapons. I think they’d be hard-pushed to make any other decision than the one they did, in the circumstances.

          Keeping going with the project once Europe looked cleared up, that’s something else, but by that point there was too much momentum.

          I think it’s far too easy to judge the issue with hindsight, especially when you’re not in all-out war with genocidal fascists yourself.

          (Yeah, it’s nuanced, but I like to cut ‘em more slack than most. :)

  10. NelC says:

    I recall seeing the documentaries that were fix-ups of the interviews that Feynman gave that became the (auto)biographies (I think that’s how it went, otherwise maybe the similarities in phrasing were due to him repeatedly telling the stories), and in that it’s much clearer that he’s making fun of himself telling this story. Reading it straight on the page with a modern sensibility it looks more shocking. But even then he pulls himself out of it in the end, by claiming that he didn’t approach things quite that way again.

    Meanwhile, reading or hearing about his relationship to his first wife and tutoring his sister makes it difficult to see him as an irredeemable sexist. It’s the past, people do things differently there.

  11. I read the Feynman’s pickup scene stories differently: he didn’t act that way because he thinks women are bitches or whores, it was just another part of human nature that he wanted to explore in his typically curious manner. Later in the book he roleplays being an artist with the same “what the hell” vigor. And with being a pickup artist, he specifically says:

    “But no matter how effective the lesson was, I NEVER REALLY USED IT AFTER THAT. I DIDN’T ENJOY DOING IT THAT WAY. But it was interesting to know that things worked much differently from how I was brought up.” [emph mine]

  12. AnthonyC says:

    I think the quote that no one understands quantum mechanics (made by Feynman, and referring to even himself) is greatly overused. No scientist understands the topic of their research- if they did, they would have already published their findings and moved on to a topic they don’t understand! That quote applies just as well to Newton as it does to Feynman, yet today every reasonably smart college freshman in a physics course gains a better understanding of mechanics than Newton had. And when they go on to take quantum mechanics, they come out with a better understanding of optics than Newton had, too. Understanding takes time. Feynman was one of the first; he hadn’t had time yet.

  13. TFox says:

    One should note that the flirting strategy advised by Feynman’s friend, and followed by Feynman in the famous anecdote, has much similarity with the advice that appears in the contemporary “pickup artist” community. The question of whether or not it seems “sexist” is distinct from the question of whether it is successful, as a strategy. The anecdote, as well as the literature, would seem to indicate that it does indeed work.

    ObPhysics: I head most of the QED lectures in person, when I was about 10, and loved them, every minute. I understood the secrets of the universe, direct from a master. The feeling lasted about half an hour, then evaporated, but I nevertheless treasure the memory. Later, when I was a physics student, I tried reading the Lectures. I found them difficult: beautifully lucid and clear on the surface, but somehow missing some details that you’d need to really understand what’s going on. Hardly anywhere uses them as primary texts, though everyone suggests them as supplements. Highly recommended anyway.

  14. noah django says:

    recently wanted to look something up in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, but no longer had my dorm-mate’s copy.  Some kind soul has uploaded a PDF of it in it’s entirety.  Spent a few hours gleefully re-reading about how he picked all the locks and cracked all the safes of his Manhattan Project colleagues (only so he could get the files he needed if they were out of the office, naturally.)

    let s/he who is without sin cast the first stone.  i see a lot of stones cast ITT.  The amount of hate generated smacks of those who have never lived their lives, fearful of what their (in this case dogmatically liberal) peers would say.  but one thing I’ve learned about haters?  pic related.  y’all DO realize that the third reich wanted to develop an atomic weapon, too–right?  y’all DO realize that “sexually immature” pick-up techniques work because a statistically significant amount of women allow them to work, right?  yes, you’re all very refined.  no, I’m not going to read about anything that ever happened to you outside of this thread.  Feynman, on the other hand, I will.

  15. Brian says:

    There’s an aspect of Feynman’s maladjusted behavior that shouldn’t be overlooked: he was able to assume the role of “royal fool” in the Challenger disaster. I think that he understood this quite clearly, and used it to see that the disaster was recognized as being rooted in politics, not engineering ineptitude.

    As for not understanding QED, Feynman’s statement reflects his recognition that there was no organized conceptual (or philosophical, if you will) framework for quantum mechanics. It is simply a set of mathematical procedures that produces correct results. Aspects of the procedure that beg for explanation include the time-ordering operators.

  16. Dan Lynch says:

    Great minds think alike. It was said of Claude Shannon that, as a young man, he would ride through the halls of Bell Labs on his unicycle. As an old man, I attribute my failure to become a great scientist to my inability to ride a unicycle.

  17. Sean Holm says:

    There is a very interesting project on Microsoft Research called “Project Tuva” and it features a video series titled “The Messenger Lectures”, which is 7 videos of Dr Feynman speaking on various topics at Cornell Univeristy in 1964.

    Here is the link:
    -> http://research.microsoft.com/apps/tools/tuva/index.html#data=3|||


  18. machinestate says:

    Multiple-disciplined physicist & engineer, check. 
    Medical doctor, check.  
    Musician, check. 
    Tragic loss of first wife, check.

    But, no Adventures across the 8th Dimension?  pffft, whatta rip

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