Physics + Comics = Feynman

I haven’t been posting for a while, in part because I’ve been really busy with work, but also because I’ve found myself frustrated a lot this year. This blog was never meant to be a place for me to vent, so I’ve avoided it while trying to work on my courses. I’ve missed it though. Writing here last summer was enjoyable and I want to do it again, so I’m easing back into blogging the way you ease into a hot bath – slowly but with a feeling of great pleasure.

Physics is one of my great loves, but nearly equal to it is my love of comics. Reading and collecting comics has been a lifelong hobby of mine and my current collection has grown to embarrassing proportions. Like many folks, my first exposure to the artform was the super-hero genre, and while it still remains a favorite, I quickly found that comics can tell amazing stories involving mystery, fantasy, history, horror or even work as non-fictional pieces. If you want to learn more about what comics can do, I recommend Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

So why am I writing about comics on a physics and teaching blog? Recently, I finished reading a biographical work – Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick and published through First Second Books.

If you’re familiar with Richard Feynman through his famous lectures or the many popular books written by him or about him, I recommend you pick up this graphic novel. Jim Ottaviani does his research well. He includes classic Feynman moments such as Feynman cracking safes at Los Alamos, the phone call he received from the Nobel committee and his testimony to Congress regarding the Challenger disaster. But the creators also include information straight from Caltech’s archives, such as a commencement address at Caltech and the QED lectures. A speech given at Far Rockaway High School, unknown to me prior to reading this, is a personal favorite. We also sit along side Feynman as he tells stories to his children and we’re at the bedside of his first wife Arline with him as she dies. Leland Myrick’s art work makes this such a heart breaking moment that we must bear witness to it, much as Feynman himself did. So many personal and public moments of this man’s life are crafted and presented with the utmost respect and admiration by the creators that you’ll feel like you were along for many of them.

What truly struck me about this work is its ability to embrace the philosophy of Richard Feynman in conveying his ideas and life. Feynman is known for approaching many ideas from a visual/pictorial point of view. He preferred to be able to visualize what he was learning and put off calculations until the thing was understood. Myrick uses this idea as shapes and symbols float through a panel in which Feynman is working out Platonic solids in school or as he develops his famous diagrams for QED. And at times, full panels are given over to diagrammatic analogies as the “voice” of Feynman narrates his thoughts. In this excerpt from the publisher, he explains nuclear fission to a room full of people as he seemingly manipulates the atomic particles. Of special note, nearly all of the Alix Mautner lectures he gave on QED are told this way with panels being filled with rotating arrows, path integrals and squiggly lines – just as Feynman himself understood these ideas. The importance of this type of understanding is stated so clearly by Feynman himself in an exchange with Freeman Dyson. As the two men relax in a rundown motel during their cross-country drive, Feynman, while talking about professional journals being filled with his “squiggles” says,

“Because you know, I dislike talk that says there’s no picture possible … that all we need to know is how to calculate something. The power of mathematics is terrifying … and too many physicists give up trying to understand their equations. Well, I want to understand them.”

This is something I struggle with teaching my students everyday, topic after topic, but I feel they are seduced by the apparent sophistication and surety of mathematics. I need to find a way to make that doodle or squiggle on the board carry just as much weight as the equation written next to it.

This graphic novel is a fantastic work and I’ll be sure to check out the other science related work by Ottaviani and Myrick.  If you’re interested in knowing Richard Feynman better or just meeting him for the first time, you should make time to read this comic.


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