The Life of a Genius, in Pictures

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"If that's the world's smartest man, God help us." - Lucille Feynman

Yesterday, Jim Ottaviani, author of the recently released graphic novel “Feynman, stopped by Butler as part of his book tour. He discussed Richard Feynman— his book about a sardonic Nobel Prize-winning physicist with a knack for bongos, and the appeal of graphic novels. Bwog Daily Editor and Feynman Fan Brian Wagner was in attendance.

To introduce the concept of a graphic novel based on the life of a physicist, Ottaviani began with a tour of science through pictures. A stone from over 5000 years ago illustrating how to calculate the square root of 2, a pop-up book on Euclid from the 1500s, quantitative pictures of fauna, and several other illustrations flashed onscreen. “Pictures also satisfy Moore’s Law,” Ottaviani explained. “The use of pictures in science doubles at roughly the same rate as predicted by the law… Okay, that’s not true. But the point is that science communicates with images!” the author explained to a chuckling crowd.

As for how using images in science translates to creating comics about scientists, that was explained by the vocabulary word of the evening: saccade. What are those, you non-bio majors ask? They are small, rapid eye movements made by humans as they observe something. When we “look” at a scene, our eyes do not remain fixed; rather, they jump around several dozen times per second in order to build up an accurate mental image (fun fact: the area which the human eye sees in clear focus is only the size of a coin held at arm’s length!). Thus, as Ottaviani likes to think of it, we’re making cartoons all the time out of these individual “frames”.                                        

Vocabulary lesson complete, the talk moved into the realm of its subtitle: “Why we did it and what we left out.” One of the first things a reader will notice about Feynman is that the book is not told in a completely linear fashion— it skips around through the life of the genius, sometimes hopping through decades at a time. “Life isn’t linear,” Ottaviani states. So what got left out? Well, a lot of it was physics. This allows Feynman to be more accessible to those of us who can’t compute an integral, but also gives the book a chance to focus on Feynman’s character and the emotional side of his remarkable life. Skipping through the years, the reader samples Feynman’s character, achievements, and worldview, all of which are well worth the time. And, for those of us who dream of vector calculus, there is still a solid chunk of physics contained within the frames. Some of the book’s best parts are excerpts of Feynman’s lectures. Here the reader is given a chance to have Feynman explain his own theories, and these passages were inspired by Feynman’s belief that everyone loves to learn, explained Ottaviani.

The talk, which remained whimsical and full of amusing anecdotes, ended with a story that captures the essence of Feynman. As it goes, an older Feynman was at dinner with his wife and friends, and asked if any of them had heard of a place named Tuva. A romp through a nearby atlas revealed that Tuva was a province in the Soviet Union with a capital called Kyzyl. Following an exclamation of the fact that Kyzyl doesn’t have any vowels, it was decided then and there that Feynman and Co. must travel to Kyzyl.

That is how Feynman lived his life—spontaneously, enthusiastically, and with insatiable curiosity. Ottaviani has crafted a uniquely visual way for physicists and laypeople alike to gain new insight into the life of a true genius, and if you missed the talk, Bwog strongly recommends that you snag a copy of the book. Even if you already know everything there is to know about QED, you still have plenty to learn from Feynman. “Feynman depressed is just a little bit happier than anyone else at their happiest,” Ottaviani quips. Surely we could all use a little more of a man like that in our lives.

Feynman in non-graphic novel form via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Karen the Librarian says  

    Thanks so much for your terrific coverage of the event, Brian! And thanks to Bwog for giving us the coveted Bwog Bump yesterday afternoon. (I tried to thank you twice on that post, but my comment kept getting rejected...)

    I'm hoping this will be the first of many comics to come, and for those more interested in the science than the medium, check out Ottaviani's other titles in CLIO!

  2. ...  

    it was feynman's dream to attend columbia, but antisemitic columbia unversity told him to fuck off and go to seth low junior college... so he turned around, told columbia to fuck off and went to MIT which lead to him ultimately growing into one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century.

  3. feynman fan

    feynman is my hero. he is so, so funny. and crazy. the stuff he did to the poor censors at Los Alamos? no one else could make you feel bad for censors.

    karen the librarian, can i please take out all the books by/on feynman that you have? according to clio there are not enough copies! too many of the existing ones are on reserve or checked out.

    • Feynman fan:  

      I can't do much about copies that are on reserve, but you can place a recall on the ones that are checked out: just go to the CLIO record and look at the top of the righthand sidebar. Click on Recall, fill out the form, and you'll have your book within 2 weeks.

      -- Karen

    • Anonymous

      feynman was my dad's best friend and mentor—it's always so cool to hear that he's someone's hero!

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