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Jim Ottaviani on his graphic novel about beloved physicist Richard Feynman

Jim Ottaviani spoke with EarthSky about his new book on world-famous Nobel physicist Richard Feynman, released in hardcover in late August 2011.

In terms of physics superstars, there’s Einstein. And then there’s Richard Feynman. It’s safe to say that Feynman is one of the world’s most beloved physicists.

Before his death in 1988, Feynman won a Nobel Prize for his work on how light and matter interact. He worked on the Manhattan Project to help build the first atomic bomb. In his spare time, Feynman was a science lecturer, safe-cracker, global traveler, artist and bongo player.

Image Credit: Ottaviani and Myrick

Jim Ottaviani, who’s just written a new book about this great science personality of the 20th century, spoke with EarthSky. Hsaid of Feynman:

He humanized what he and his colleagues were doing. And he made it seem more exciting, more joyful, more fun than your … stereotypical view of science.

Ottaviani’s new book, Feynman, was released in late August 2011. It’s a soup-to-nuts chronicle, moving all the way from Feynman’s childhood in Queens, New York to his death in Los Angeles in 1988.

But Feynman is no ordinary biography. The book is in a graphic novel format – what you might think of as an extended comic strip. It was illustrated by Leland Myrick. Some samples are below.

[nggallery id=feynman]

We asked Ottaviani: why a graphic novel, and why Feynman? He told us:

Scientists quite often communicate in pictures. Feynman in particular was a very visual thinker as exemplified by the so-called Feynman Diagrams … he was an artist himself … so the notion of combining words and pictures to tell this story makes a whole lot of sense to me.

He explained that Feynman is probably most famous for the so-called Feynman Diagrams – a set of drawings that helped Feynman (along with colleagues Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga) win the Nobel Prize in 1965. The drawings are still in use today.

Feynman Diagram. No copyright holder known.

The premise of the diagrams is complicated, Ottaviani said, but, essentially, they’re arrows and squiggles that show how matter interacts with light. The diagrams advanced scientists’ understanding of quantum mechanics – the science of the very, very small – by showing that crazy stuff has to be considered, if you’re talking about the behavior of elementary particles.

Even if means imagining – or even assuming – that really bizarre stuff happens. Particles interacting backwards in time, particles moving backwards and then forwards to go 100 percent forwards. All these weird things happen. And his insight was to say: okay, let nature be nature, and let nature do whatever it wants … as long as I account for all of it. And his work was such that he could do this in an elegant way. What Feynman realized is that all of those things are possible and if you take that into account and sum up all the possible paths that could be taken by these interacting particles, that’s how you get the true answer of what’s going on.

He added that Feynman’s life story is so relevant today because, as the world continues to struggle with communicating science, Feynman found innovative ways to tell science’s story with pictures, drawings and equations, all interspersed with colorful stories of travel and adventure. Ottaviani said Feynman understood how difficult it was to explain the nature of his prize-winning physics work:

As he famously quipped to a reporter: if I could explain it in three minutes, it wouldn’t be worth the Nobel Prize.


Image Credit: Ottaviani and Myrick

Ottaviani explained to us that a good portion of his graphic novel is constructed with Feynman talking directly to the audience. He said that’s because Feynman is well-known for a series of lectures he gave on physics which, he said, most physicists have somewhere in their library. Feynman delivered the lectures to undergraduates at Caltech from 1961 to 1963.

Image Credit: Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory

He added that one of the favorite sequences in his book involved Feynman’s notorious safe-cracking, which he did at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico while working on the world’s first atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. He underscored that Los Alamos was – and remains – one of the most heavily-guarded places on Earth. But it was susceptible to to Feyman’s powerful intelligence.

So he’s there in Los Alamos in the 40’s and he came up with a scheme where he was able to open up, pretty much, any of the safes on site within a few minutes.

He did it by feel, Ottaviani said, and he would sometimes do it as a practical joke.

So somebody had left for the day, and somebody else need a paper from one of their colleagues – they could go to Feynman and say, “Hey, I know [nuclear physicist] Hanz Bethe locked this thing away, and he’s out for the day. But I really need this paper. So can you help me out and get this thing? And Feynman would “pretend” that he needed to go get a set of tools or something, but what he really did was close the door, use this technique he had for pulling off the numbers in a combination. And then open the safe and hand people what they wanted. Or sometimes leave people a mischievous note saying “I was here.”

He said another one of his favorite parts of the new book was an anecdote from Feynman’s personal life, which occurred after he was diagnosed with cancer. [SPOILER ALERT!]

My absolute favorite sequence is the very end of the book. It’s about the walk that Feynman took with a close friend of his named Danny Hillis near the hills near his house. I think [the book’s illustrator] Leland did such a great job. As I said, it’s about a walk that Feynman took with a friend near his home in Los Angeles towards the end of his life. The segment is called “The Good Stuff.” Feynman has just been diagnosed with the iteration of the cancer that’s going to kill him, and everybody knows it.

But he’s just walking along telling a story as he often would, and Danny is looking sadder and sadder. And he says: “What’s up?” And Danny says, “I’m sorry that you’re going to die.” And Feynman says, “I’m kinda bummed out about that, too.” Though he didn’t use those words. Then he said, “But, you know, after you get to be my age, you realize that you’ve told almost everybody you know most of the good stuff that you know.” And then Feynman looks around and says, “Hey, I think I can show you a better way home from here.”

And even there, at the very end of his life, Ottaviani said, Feynman was still thinking, still enjoying life, still teaching people.

Image Credit: Ottaviani and Myrick

Bottom line: Jim Ottaviani spoke with EarthSky about his new graphic novel on Nobel physicist Richard Feynman. It was released in hardcover by First Second Press in late August 2011.

Special thanks to Cathleen Day for her creative input on this feature. Special extreme thanks to Chris Comfort for his help with images.

Beth Lebwohl