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Fleen Book Corner: Feynman

But first, some quick bits from over the weekend:

  • Graphic Smash went away over the weekend for a little bit, but appears to be back now. Judging from some of the comments in our posting on this topic over the weekend, there seems to be an expectation in some quarters that the Modern Tales family of websites, like the stars at the end of The Nine Billions Names of God, will start blinking out without any fuss. We’ll see.
  • Eric Burns-White has announced the return of the new Websnark, should you wish to update your bookmarks or RSS subscriptions. Mr E B-White got into the talkin’ ’bout webcomics game a good 14 months before this page debuted, and for a pretty good while there he and I were roughly contemporaries. The ways to tell us apart were relatively few:
    • He has a bigger thesaurus than I do
    • He has one more wife named Wednesday than me
    • He’s got a beard

    Apart from that, we are roughly contemporaneous in age, in temperament, and interests,and despite the exceedingly kind words he has for this page (and the hack webcomics pseudo-journalist that runs it), he’s already got more words written today than I’ve managed in the past week or so. Ooh, did I just make fun of Mr Snark for excess verbiage? Burnsauce¹.

  • The Joe Shuster Awards for excellence in comics by Canadian creators were handed out at the Calgary Expo over the weekend; the award for Outstanding Web Comics Creator/Créateur Exceptionnel de Bandes Dessinées Web went to Emily Carroll for her body of work, including the truly excellent His Face All Red. Carroll burst onto the scene seemingly from nowhere last year, and it’s heartening to see that new talents can be recognized; the Shusters remain the paragon of stripped-down, quality comics awards.

Okay, book time. This one meanders a bit, so bear with me. As always, thanks to the good folks at :01 Books for the review copy.

There are people that I’ve met that have given me a thrill (Neil deGrasse Tyson, Ira Glass, Scott McCloud, Neil Gaiman) and those who I will never get the chance to meet (Chuck Jones, Jim Henson, Stephen Jay Gould, Claude Shannnon), whose absence cannot ever be filled. But primus inter pares of these luminaries is Richard Feynman².

A bit of context: in the mid- to late ’80s, a budding geek like me, full into the rigors of Nerd School, couldn’t not know about Feynman. His first book of personal anecdotes released about the same time he came to the public eye as a result of his role in the Challenger board of inquiry, and then he died just as the wider world was getting to know this curious character. We nerdlings knew of his famed lectures on physics, his Nobel-winning work on quantum electrodynamics, but what made us adopt him as our tribal ideal, as the ur-geek, were those stories from his life.

Plus, the guy got laid. A lot.

And that was what made him stand out, what relates him to those others in those lists up there; no, not the sex — the stories³.

Feynman was a born storyteller, whether it was stories of his life and experiences, or the stories that told how the world around us works, the stories that translated the highly abstract mathematics of physics that even physicists found to be obscure into the language that nearly anybody could understand. He knew the value of approximations and round-offs and pictures. Pictures! Two others independently did the same work that earned Feynman the Nobel Prize, but it’s the Feynman diagrams that let you skip the calculations and come to the answer with just a few squiggles4, 5, 6.

So what I am saying is that Richard Feynman has been a big influence on my life. This book was made for me, and as such it was going to get a rave from me as long as it is more than merely adequate in terms of writing and art. Fortunately, it is far more than merely adequate.

Jim Ottaviani has combed through a multiple-meter-tall stack of stories, technical documents, biographies, and writings on Feynman, and brought together the best bits in a mostly-chronological (with occasional flashbacks and flashforwards, as any good storyteller might use to break up an overly-linear tale) fashion.

Opening on a talk that Feynman gave at his old high school, the bulk of the book could well be a graphical representation of the most riveting, meandering assembly those students ever got. Best of all, near the end of the book Ottaviani works in excerpts of some of Feynman’s famed lectures (introductory physics for freshmen, and also on QED) in his famed conversational style — those that never “got” physics, read these few non-threatening pages, and let them convince you to look up the originals.

Artist Leland Myrick does a great job of making cartoon Feynman evoke actual Feynman, without losing any of the expression and looseness that good cartoons can bring to bear. For those familiar with Feynman and other famous scientific luminaries, they all look like themselves, but not so much as to be reduced to “others”. We can identify with this one lanky fellow with the wavy hair (which occasionally looks like the wavy part of a Feynman diagram) and like him. His voice gets inside the reader’s head (if you haven’t ever heard recordings of Feynman, go look some up) and makes us feel that, like the best storytellers manage even in front of enormous crowds, this story is meant for an audience of one.

Starting from the observation of the what (Feynman’s father taught him in observing the world), one can develop the basis to determine the how and why, whether it’s the how and why of a bird pecking at the ground, or the how and why of the universe’s workings. For those that weren’t familiar with Feynman before, you’ve got the beginnings of what he did, the ways he behaved, and can start to put together the how and why of one man. That translation of knowledge from one mind to another, and done in a way to make more interesting than mere transfer of fact? That’s the essence of storytelling. Feynman appreciated it like no other, and Ottaviani and Myrick are worthy practitioners of the art.

¹ Or Burns-Whitesauce, if you prefer.

² Maybe Benjamin Franklin; I have a feeling that he was probably as much fun as Feynman, and probably knew more dick jokes.

³ One might argue that Shannon was not a storyteller to the degree that the others were, but given that his work made possible all the modern forms of communication, we can consider him a builder of storyteller infrastructure. It’s my essay, I’ll gloss where I want to.

4 And with the inclusion of pictures, Shannon’s right back in the running since his famed Figure 1 encapsulated an entire field of study into just one diagram. If I ever decide to get a tattoo, it’s gonna be this.

5 One of the greatest teachers I ever had, Dr Frank Acker, was big on diagrams. I once completed an entire final exam on electromagnetic fields forgoing calculations and formulas and using the field diagrams he taught and got full credit. Although the answers weren’t as “correct” as if I’d done the math, it was far easier and well within the 2% tolerance than any physical parts would have been expected to meet.

6 Speaking of diagrams, I’d like to thank whatever deranged freak decided that New Math was a good idea, which led to me learning Set Theory at the age of six, leading to a life-long love of Venn diagrams and pictures in place of formulas. I’m probably the only person that actually benefitted, though — the Venn diagram of today’s adults that took New Math and those that saw any benefit from it hell of looks like an eight.

No one who can use the phrase primus inter pares correctly in a post gets to make fun of my thesaurus. (And thanks for the note. ;) )

Wow! Websnark’s back?! And just when I was about to do a comic making reference to it being a non-updating page! Welcome back!

[…] Fleen reported yesterday that Websnark is back at a somewhat new web address. I checked in to see if he’s looking into webcomics again. The answer, I think, is no… since “webcomics”, in his opinion, is becoming an obsolete term: Back in the old days, we had a lot of distinctions we threw out. Newspaper Comics. Webcomics. Independent Comics. Mainstream Comics. Comic Books. Editorial Cartoons, Cartooning, Cartoonists, et al ad nauseum. […]

[…] my review of Feynman I talked at length about the man, what he meant to me, and how good the content between the covers […]

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