If that’s all there was, wouldn’t it be enough? The general population has a particular fascination with reading about things it does not quite understand. This is why Brian Greene’s books do so well — string theory for dummies! — and why bookshelves across the world contain half-read copies of “A Brief History of Time” and “A Short History of Nearly Everything” and anything else that purports to explain it all.
Feynman’s popularity endures because his life managed to combine all of life’s big questions with all of the little ones: the search for a beautiful woman, a good bar, a great joke. He lived in Brazil! He learned to speak Japanese! He was married three times!
(© JIM OTTAVIANI AND LELAND MYRICK, USED WITH PERMISSION OF FIRST SECOND BOOKS) - An inside page from ‘Feynman’ by Jim Ottaviani, illustrated by Leland Myrick.
The cult of Feynman is comprised equally of brains who wish they were more whimsical and bon vivants who want to show they’re also brainy. He is the specter that guides the modern nerd — in a small corner of the geekoverse, people like him better than Einstein.
Which might be due to the fact that, as Ottaviani notes, “He had this compulsion to make anecdotes of himself.”
The world at large likely became acquainted with Feynman through a collection of these anecdotes: “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” which became a bestseller in 1985. That book was as-told-to Ralph Leighton, whose scientist father was Feynman’s pal. Leighton’s parents used to call Feynman for help in getting baby Leighton to eat foods he didn’t like — Feynman would construct a feeding pattern of tasty foods and gross foods, then disrupt it. (Classic Feynman.)
“When I would hear a story for the fifth time, I realized it was kind of like a jazz piece,” says Leighton, who works as a Hollywood producer. “It had some essential items and some essential themes, but it was never quite the same on any given night — and that, too, was part of the theme.”
As for the comic book, Leighton thinks Feynman would have enjoyed it. ”It was an amazingly huge task,” he says of Ottoviani’s endeavor. “But I think he’s done well.”
Ottaviani thinks authors will continue to explore Feynman’s odd romp through the outskirts of knowledge.
“If we knew what made him so compelling,” Ottaviani says, “we would all be Feynman.”
Jim Ottaviani will appear Oct. 2 from noon to 5 p.m. at the National Air and Space Museum, 601 Independence Ave. NW.