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…
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