He studied science and later taught it. He was an amateur safe-breaker and musician. He even helped develop the atom bomb. And he was funny.
When I was in school, in the 1980s, his Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman!created a cult of its own among the nerds (and I must confess that I was one) and actually made physics cool. Richard Phillips Feynman was, after all, a Nobel Prize winner. He won the prize in 1965, along with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger, for “their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles”, according to the official website of the Nobel Prize (Nobelprize.org).
Quantum electrodynamics, abbreviated as QED (the same as Quod erat demonstrandum, Latin for “which was to be shown”, a phrase usually used at the end of mathematical proofs) is, in general terms, a theory that explains much of the physical phenomena around us. It helped advance the study of physics by serving as a bridge to (or unifying, as physicists would say) the electromagnetic theory proposed by James Maxwell in the late 1800s with quantum theory.
Biography: It highlights Feynman’s curiosity, openness and intelligence.
Although I studied QED in college (as part of a course called Modern Physics where, I am sorry to say, I made a C), I didn’t particularly understand it. I am afraid my knowledge of QED isn’t any better after reading a comic book that bravely tackles the subject. The book, titled Feynman, is by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick and, as its name would suggest, it is about the life and work of Feynman. As someone who has rather recklessly studied some fairly complex subjects (topology anyone?), I have always suspected that our understanding of these would be improved by knowledge of the lives of the people who came up with the fundamental theories on which these subjects are based. This suspicion became stronger after I read Logicomix (regular readers may remember it from a column a few years ago), a graphic novel about Bertrand Russell’s quest for the fundamental truths of mathematics. The book actually encouraged me to read some of the works it was about.
Ottaviani has made a name for himself as a writer of science comics and Myrick’s illustrations boast sharp lines and soft colours (which somehow seem apt for the story of a physicist). The graphic novel approach may well make Feynman and his works accessible to people who may otherwise not have spent time reading a biography of the physicist, although I would have preferred to see some interpretative illustrations in a book that is about a man who used doodles, not equations, to explain some of the nuances of QED.
Feynman, the graphic novel, is a straight biography that chronicles the man and a little bit of his work. It covers his relationships, his quirkiness (among them, the attempt to rescue a topless dancing bar he patronized from ruin), and his work (including his attempt to make physics approachable for the common person). More than anything else, it highlights Feynman’s curiosity, openness, and intelligence.
In a parallel universe, he would have been Superman.
R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.
Write to him at email@example.com