My full-on love of all things science has been documented here before, but some of you may be doubting my science nerd credentials. I mean, sure, I have that degree in mathematics and everything, but all I ever write about here is comics and fiction with a side dish of social justice oriented non-fiction. Just where is the science? you might be wondering. Never fear, I am about to destroy you with my combined nerd powers: Science plus comics!
Here is how deep my science nerdism runs: This year at TCAF, the glorious festival of all things comics here in Toronto, I was interpreting for Kanata Konami, author of the adorable and slightly diabetes-inducing, but ultimately thought-provoking Chi’s Sweet Home, which meant that I spent the entire festival making sure her, her editor and her husband had someone to speak English for them at all times. (I also made sure they were fed new foreign treats with trips to an Ethiopian restaurant and a falafel place. Yes, as an interpreter, it is my duty to ensure that Japanese guests all taste the chick pea goodness that is the falafel.) And as much fun as I had with Team Konami (including the delightful discovery that Konami herself is also a huge fan of Ekoda-chan. We bonded), trailing them meant I had little to no time to check out the many great exhibitors and buy a ton of books myself. This is good for my long-suffering wallet, less good for my book-battling brain.
But there was one book! One book that I knew would be there, one book that I had to get signed by the creators even if it meant letting Konami be overrun by her legions of child fans bearing pictures of cats they drew for her. (Yes, said legions were utterly adorable.) That book? Yes, of course, the comics biography of Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman.
Now, Feynman is not my favourite physicist. (And yes, I have a favourite physicist. Look at me racking up the nerd points!) That would probably be Roger Penrose because he is just so math-oriented and how can you not love a man who developed that beautiful non-periodic tiling? But still, as physicists go, Feynman was pretty awesome. He had such an intuitive grasp of the field, and his Feynman diagrams are disarmingly simple for something so complicated. And he worked hard to get regular, non-science peeps to understand physics and what quantum mechanics was all about, with books like The Feynman Lectures on Physics. (Seriously. Go check them out. Learn some physics. They’re surprisingly readable for a non-specialist.)
So on the last day of TCAF, with only twenty minutes before they shut the doors and kicked us all out, I broke free from my charges with apologies, sending them back to their hotel for a rest before an evening of goodbye dinners. And I headed straight for the table where Feynman had been laid out teasingly for the past two days. And I bought it. And got it signed with a great little drawing of Feynman. If Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick were taken aback by my abrupt “I’ve been waiting all weekend to buy this”, they did not show it. (Seriously. I didn’t even look either of them in the eye or say hello.)
(Also, at this point I have to say that Leland Myrick is one of the best names I’ve ever come across. Makes me think of trenchcoats belted tight on rainy nights and fedoras tilted downward to shadow a secret face, an awkward anti-hero.)
And you know what? Feynman was worth the wait. If you’ve read any of Feynman’s books, you know a lot of the details already, but seeing them laid out in comics form in this engaging back and forth chronology that moves steadily forward is a treat and brings with it new insights. The book takes you through Feynman’s life in a beautifully curated way, from Feynman’s childhood until right before his death, including a very touching postscript of sorts.
The art itself is very engaging. There’s a playfulness to Myrick’s linework that really compliments the story being told, and seems so appropriate for a man who was known almost as much for being “really, really fun at parties” as he was for his work in physics. And I love love love the wobbly knots of hair that Myrick employs. So distinctive and yet so evocative of the actual look of the man himself.
Ottaviani maintains a good balance in the writing, too, not tipping too far towards the science that might be a turn-off for the casual reader, but not shying away from it either. In fact, one of Feynman’s introductory graduate lectures is given in its entirety (maybe? I don’t have the lecture on hand to double check), so if you ever wanted to understand wave-particle duality and the nature of light, here’s your chance!
I also like the way Ottaviani shows how the science comes from Feynman’s life, the way the physics influences how he thinks in other areas, but also how aspects of his non-physics life influence his science. We get a glimpse of how Feynman’s work on the Manhattan Project shifts his thinking about Manhattan itself in a few simple images after Feynman moves to New York. Or in a sillier vein, we get to see him working at the beach, drawing his diagrams of electrons and photons in the sand. And you know I laughed out loud at his attempts to learn Japanese so he could talk with Japanese scientists: “I gave up—This stuff about when it’s me it’s miserable, when it’s you it’s elegant?” Yup.
Ottaviani was also careful to include a pretty thorough bibliography, complete with explanations of the merits of each selection. So if you find yourself really in love with Richard Feynman by the end of the book (and I have to admit that I liked him more when I was done this thing), you can run straight to the library and indulge in more physics goodness. Now if only someone would do a comic biography of Kurt Gödel, my life would basically be complete. Oh, Incompleteness Theorem, you are so pretty!