Feynman In Pictures

Based on two very positive reviews (Dyson, Physics Buzz) I bought ‘Feynman’ by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick a few months ago.

Last week I got round to looking at it and was completely transfixed! Although it wasn’t my intention, I ended up ‘reading’ most of the book in one sitting. I write ‘reading’ as it has a comic/manga book style and an example page is given above (most of the book isn’t as technical as this).

In my opinion the pictorial approach works really well and is a good complement to the many biographies that are already available (see here). It may also introduce Feynman and physics to a much wider audience.

The book is structured via topics that cropped up during his life eg computing machines (1945), trust (1984), you’re joking mr feynman (1985) and some of the themes that are brought out include:

  • He was a very visual thinker – he even saw equations in colours
  • He liked to think things through his way and not be too influenced by others
  • He worked very hard
  • He had wide interests, including women!

Where it didn’t work quite so well for me was where they tried to explain some of the physics ideas – I think for this you really do need to go into a bit more detail. However as the text in this type of book is necessarily very limited, maybe the taster they give is perhaps a reasonable compromise. Thinking about it, a hybrid book may be the best option, a fluid mixture of annotated pictures and pure text. The authors give a good commented bibliography at the end if you want to find out more.

On a personal note I first came across Feynman when I was a physics undergraduate at Queen Mary College. I was in a problem-solving session one day and my tutor (Dr William Yeung I think it was) had some research journals lying around. I took a look, as I was hoping to get into research myself, and was amazed to see lots of pictures (Feynman Diagrams) all over the place! Up to then physics had been all equations. Somehow it didn’t seem ‘serious’ but he assured me that it was and very clever too. Some examples of Feynman diagrams are given in the image above.

Later, when doing my doctorate in particle physics at Imperial College, I decided to read some of Feynman’s original papers. I still remember being struck by this phrase in one of his most important papers:

It is as though a bombardier flying low over a road suddenly sees three roads and it is only when two of them come together and disappear again that he realizes that he has simply passed over a long switchback in a single road.

All the other papers I’d been reading were written in a very academic and conservative style – I was really surprised at his almost conversational (although very effective) way of describing new ideas!

Finally I had the good fortune to meet him in the late 80′s. I co-organised an international workshop on an approximation method (in quantum field theory) that I’d been working on. As I’d heard through the grapevine that Feynman was also working on this topic, I thought I’d take a chance and invite him. To my surprise and delight he accepted and he took part in the meeting that was held on the island of Wangerooge (photo below), off the coast of Germany, in September 1987.

I’m planning on writing a few of the Feynman stories up from this meeting as I’ve never found his visit there mentioned anywhere else. He unfortunately died of cancer in early 1988.

Picture credits: bottom.

This post was accidentally dated 31 July – it was actually published on 8 August. To avoid further confusion I’ll keep things as they are!

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