Feynman graphic-novel biography out in paperback today

Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick's Feynman, a stupendous biography of Richard Feynman in graphic novel form that went to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list, is out in paperback as of today! Here's my original review from 2011:

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 I'm going to start listening to the audio of his lectures. And I'll be shoving Feynman at everyone I can get to read it.




  1. They don’t dip into his embarrassing ‘writings’? Since by his own account he actually succeeded in browbeating the woman he was talking about into having sex with him, I don’t think it’s the *writing* about it, per se, that most people would count as a mark against him.

  2. Feynman was a hell of a character. That one really unfortunate chapter from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! always comes up in these discussions, and rightfully so–it was painful to read. I think we can respect Feynman for everything he was while still acknowledging that his sexual politics were problematic. It’s surprising how many people can’t manage to do both at once–what really gets me are the pathetic modern-day “pick-up artists” who actually take that chapter as a guidebook. I think most of the backlash against Feynman’s sexual politics is actually a direct response to these losers.

    I wouldn’t tolerate a person who treats women like Feynman did during his PUA period, but I do think dead people get a certain amount of leeway for being products of their time; and it’s to Feynman’s credit that he dropped that approach pretty quickly. (“I never really used it after that. I didn’t enjoy doing it that way.”) As long as you’re enough of a grown-up not to take him as a sexual role model, I think it’s okay to dwell more on his successes and his lovable failures.

  3. As if any man wouldn’t turn every tool he has toward getting laid. Feynman did the experiment and rejected the results as unacceptable. That is how he rolled. 

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