It is a sad fact — an endlessly rehashed symbol of just what is wrong with America — that we make heroes of athletes but not mathletes, that we write comic books about men with capes but not real men with calculators, and that “Dancing With the Stars” has never tapped Andre Geim or Konstantin Novoselov, who — oh, admit it, you had to Google them — were last year’s winners of the Nobel Prize in physics.
Let us now commence an ode to a dead scientist.
There is a new graphic novel called “Feynman.” The hero is a particle physicist. Not, mind you, just any particle physicist. The people’s particle physicist. The cute one. Richard P. Feynman, “The Great Explainer,” 1965 Nobel Prize winner, player of bongos, seducer of women, launcher of thousands of dreamy-eyed physics majors. Even for those who haven’t taken a science class since 11th grade, referencing Richard Feynman (1918-1988) is a somewhat fashionable pursuit — the quirk, the flair, the devil-may-care. As much as representing science for scientists, his attitude seemed to represent science for the scient-ish — kookiness that was first brought to the mainstream in his autobiography, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.”
In “Feynman,” read about how the irrepressible and colorfully sketched PhD pulls pranks on his fellow researchers on the Manhattan Project. Watch as the rascally professor solves the Dirac Equation. Observe as the hard-partying genius boldly calls Niels Bohr by his given name, instead of by his code handle “Nicholas Baker.” In one panel of the 300-page book, Feynman spins dinner plates to unlock secrets of quantum mechanics; in another he humiliates a NASA official during the Rogers Commission investigation of the Challenger explosion.
“His work on the atomic bomb, his efforts in supercomputing, his participation on the Rogers Commission — he got his fingerprints all over the 20th century,” says “Feynman” author Jim Ottaviani (the illustrator is Leland Myrick).
Ottaviani is a nuclear engineer turned librarian turned graphic novelist who, after being approached by First Second books about drawing educational comic books, immediately thought of his favorite scientific hero. He will be at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum on Sunday to present his book.
“For decades, there has not been an issue of the Physical Review,” he says, reverentially, “that did not have a Feynman diagram in it.”
Twenty-three years after Feynman’s death, he is still treated as science’s wacky brother-in-law, the smart but unpredictable one, the one you keep telling stories about long after he runs off to Bora Bora.
In addition to Ottaviani’s graphic novel, this year saw the publication of another, more traditional biography: “Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science” by the theoretical physicist Lawrence M. Krauss, which traces Feynman’s scientific legacy.
“He was an amazing and charismatic human being, but if that’s all there was, there wouldn’t be biographies about him,” Krauss says.
“He won the Nobel Prize and blah blah blah, whatever,” says Ottaviani. “But if that’s all there was . . . ”
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!
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.