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The ‘Dramatic Picture’ of Richard Feynman


by Jim Ottaviani, with art by Leland Myrick and coloring by Hilary Sycamore
First Second, 266 pp., $29.99
Shelley Gazin/Corbis
Richard Feynman, circa 1985

In the last hundred years, since radio and television created the modern worldwide mass-market entertainment industry, there have been two scientific superstars, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. Lesser lights such as Carl Sagan and Neil Tyson and Richard Dawkins have a big public following, but they are not in the same class as Einstein and Hawking. Sagan, Tyson, and Dawkins have fans who understand their message and are excited by their science. Einstein and Hawking have fans who understand almost nothing about science and are excited by their personalities.

On the whole, the public shows good taste in its choice of idols. Einstein and Hawking earned their status as superstars, not only by their scientific discoveries but by their outstanding human qualities. Both of them fit easily into the role of icon, responding to public adoration with modesty and good humor and with provocative statements calculated to command attention. Both of them devoted their lives to an uncompromising struggle to penetrate the deepest mysteries of nature, and both still had time left over to care about the practical worries of ordinary people. The public rightly judged them to be genuine heroes, friends of humanity as well as scientific wizards.

Two new books now raise the question of whether Richard Feynman is rising to the status of superstar. The two books are very different in style and in substance. Lawrence Krauss’s book, Quantum Man, is a narrative of Feynman’s life as a scientist, skipping lightly over the personal adventures that have been emphasized in earlier biographies. Krauss succeeds in explaining in nontechnical language the essential core of Feynman’s thinking. Unlike any previous biographer, he takes the reader inside Feynman’s head and reconstructs the picture of nature as Feynman saw it. This is a new kind of scientific history, and Krauss is well qualified to write it, being an expert physicist and a gifted writer of scientific books for the general public. Quantum Man shows us the side of Feynman’s personality that was least visible to most of his admirers, the silent and persistent calculator working intensely through long days and nights to figure out how nature works.

The other book, by writer Jim Ottaviani and artist Leland Myrick, is very different. It is a comic-book biography of Feynman, containing 266 pages of pictures of Feynman and his legendary adventures. In every picture, bubbles of text record Feynman’s comments, mostly taken from stories that he and others had told and published in earlier books. We see Feynman first as an inquisitive five-year-old, learning from his father to question authority and admit ignorance. He asks his father at the playground, “Why does [the ball] keep moving?” His father says, “The reason the ball keeps rolling is because it has ‘inertia.’ That’s what scientists call the reason…, but it’s just a name. Nobody really knows what it means.” His father was a traveling salesman without scientific training, but he understood the difference between giving a thing a name and knowing how it works. He ignited in his son a lifelong passion to know how things work.

After the scenes with his father, the pictures show Feynman changing gradually through the roles of ebullient young professor and carnival drum-player, doting parent and loving husband, revered teacher and educational reformer, until he ends his life as a wrinkled sage in a losing battle with cancer. It comes as a shock to see myself portrayed in these pages, as a lucky young student taking a four-day ride with Feynman in his car from Cleveland to Albuquerque, sharing with him some unusual lodgings and entertained by an unending stream of his memorable conversation.

One of the incidents in Feynman’s life that displayed his human qualities sharply was his reaction to the news in 1965 that he had won a Nobel Prize. When the telephone call came from Stockholm, he made remarks that appeared arrogant and ungrateful. He said he would probably refuse the prize, since he hated formal ceremonies and particularly hated the pompous rituals associated with kings and queens. His father had told him when he was a kid, “What are kings anyway? Just guys in fancy clothes.” He would rather refuse the prize than be forced to dress up and shake hands with the King of Sweden.

But after a few days, he changed his mind and accepted the prize. As soon as he arrived in Sweden, he made friends with the Swedish students who came to welcome him. At the banquet when he officially accepted the prize, he gave an impromptu speech, apologizing for his earlier rudeness and thanking the Swedish people with a moving personal account of the blessings that the prize had brought to him.

Feynman had looked forward to meeting Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, the Japanese physicist who shared the Nobel Prize with him. Tomonaga had independently made some of the same discoveries as Feynman, five years earlier, in the total isolation of wartime Japan. He shared with Feynman not only ideas about physics but also experiences of personal tragedy. In the spring of 1945, Feynman was nursing his beloved first wife, Arline, through the last weeks of her life until he watched her die from tuberculosis. In the same spring, Tomonaga was helping a group of his students to survive in the ashes of Tokyo, after a firestorm devastated the city and killed an even greater number of people than the nuclear bomb would kill in Hiroshima four months later. Feynman and Tomonaga shared three outstanding qualities: emotional toughness, intellectual integrity, and a robust sense of humor.

To Feynman’s dismay, Tomonaga failed to appear in Stockholm. The Ottaviani-Myrick book has Tomonaga explaining what happened:

Although I sent a letter saying that I would be “pleased to attend,” I loathed the thought of going, thinking that the cold would be severe, as the ceremony was to be held in December, and that the inevitable formalities would be tiresome. After I was named a Nobel Prize awardee, many people came to visit, bringing liquor. I had barrels of it. One day, my father’s younger brother, who loved whiskey, happened to stop by and we both began drinking gleefully. We drank a little too much, and then, seizing the opportunity that my wife had gone out shopping, I entered the bathroom to take a bath. There I slipped and fell down, breaking six of my ribs… It was a piece of good luck in that unhappy incident.

After Tomonaga recovered from his injuries, he was invited to England to receive another high honor requiring a formal meeting with royalty. This time he did not slip in the bathtub. He duly appeared at Buckingham Palace to shake hands with the English Queen. The Queen did not know that he had failed to travel to Stockholm. She innocently asked him whether he had enjoyed his meeting with the King of Sweden. Tomonaga was totally flummoxed. He could not bring himself to confess to the Queen that he had got drunk and broken his ribs. He said that he had enjoyed his conversation with the King very much. He remarked afterward that for the rest of his life he would be carrying a double burden of guilt, first for getting drunk, and second for telling a lie to the Queen of England.

Twenty years later, when Feynman was mortally ill with cancer, he served on the NASA commission investigating the Challenger disaster of 1986. He undertook this job reluctantly, knowing that it would use up most of the time and strength that he had left. He undertook it because he felt an obligation to find the root causes of the disaster and to speak plainly to the public about his findings. He went to Washington and found what he had expected at the heart of the tragedy: a bureaucratic hierarchy with two groups of people, the engineers and the managers, who lived in separate worlds and did not communicate with each other. The engineers lived in the world of technical facts; the managers lived in the world of political dogmas.

He asked members of both groups to tell him their estimates of the risk of disastrous failure in each Space Shuttle mission. The engineers estimated the risk to be of the order of one disaster in a hundred missions. The managers estimated the risk to be of the order of one disaster in a hundred thousand missions. The difference, a factor of a thousand between the two estimates, was never reconciled and never openly discussed. The managers were in charge of the operations and made the decisions to fly or not to fly, based on their own estimates of the risk. But the technical facts that Feynman uncovered proved that the managers were wrong and the engineers were right.

Feynman had two opportunities to educate the public about the causes of the disaster. The first opportunity concerned the technical facts. An open meeting of the commission was held with newspaper and television reporters present. Feynman was prepared with a glass of ice water and a sample of a rubber O-ring seal from a shuttle solid-fuel booster rocket. He dipped the piece of rubber into the ice water, pulled it out, and demonstrated the fact that the cold rubber was stiff. The cold rubber would not function as a gas-tight seal to keep the hot rocket exhaust away from the structure. Since the Challenger launch had occurred on January 28 in unusually cold weather, Feynman’s little demonstration pointed to the stiffening of the O-ring seal as a probable technical cause of the disaster.

The second opportunity to educate the public concerned the culture of NASA. Feynman wrote an account of the cultural situation as he saw it, with the fatal division of the NASA administration into two noncommunicating cultures, engineers and managers. The political dogma of the managers, declaring risks to be a thousand times smaller than the technical facts would indicate, was the cultural cause of the disaster. The political dogma arose from a long history of public statements by political leaders that the Shuttle was safe and reliable. Feynman ended his account with the famous declaration: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Feynman fought hard to have his statement of conclusions incorporated in the official report of the commission. The chairman of the commission, William Rogers, was a professional politician with long experience in government. Rogers wished the public to believe that the Challenger disaster was a highly unlikely accident for which NASA was not to blame. He fought hard to exclude Feynman’s statement from the report. In the end a compromise was reached. Feynman’s statement was not included in the report but was added as an appendix at the end, with a note saying that it was Feynman’s personal statement and not agreed to by the commission. This compromise worked to Feynman’s advantage. As he remarked at the time, the appendix standing at the end got much more public attention than it would have if it had been part of the official report.

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