By December 10, 2011 0 Comments Read More →

Reading Richard Feynman

I’m lousy at science, but fascinated by the minds of those who are good at it. My friend and book club inspiration Margaret Cubberly introduced me to one of the most intriguing–Richard Feynman–a few years back, and I’ve been fascinated ever since.

Feynman is interesting because although his scientific work is important, his oddball character and gifts as a raconteur have perhaps had even more influence than his physics. His popularization of science and his curiosity about how we think and formulate new ideas have inspired many.

The latest book about him is called, simply, Feynman. It’s a graphic biography by Jim Ottaviani and Leonard Myrick, and in this case, the format is particularly apt. Feynman loved to draw himself and one of his notable contributions to science was the Feynman diagram, a way of making certain equations more visual. Feynman experienced some degree of synesthesia when he practiced science, viewing equations in color and three dimensions moving around him. The new graphic biography, illustrated with art that makes great use of the color spectrum, gracefully encapsulates Feynman’s life, major scientific ideas, philosophies, and quirky tone. It makes a fantastic introduction to a man as vivid as any literary character.

This certainly isn’t the only book to read on the subject. For more Feynman, start with his own words. Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character collects his two books Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think? They’re rambling, anecdotal, and inspiring, unexpected, then yet again what one might expect from a gifted scientist whose hobbies included safecracking and playing in bands at Carnival in Brazil.

For those with a more scientific bent, Feynman’s classic lectures introducing the study of physics are collected in a new box set of The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Clear, insightful, and surprisingly dramatic, the lectures are one of the few instances when a top level scientist has turned his intellect to the art of teaching with great success. Much less expensive is Six Easy Pieces: Essential of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher, a book which condenses the most basic of the lectures. If you get through that, you can go on to Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, a follow-up volume.

Finally, there are many good Feynman biographies available beyond the new graphic novel. James Gleick’s Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman is probably the standard bearer, if you want the whole story of Feynman’s life, while Lawrence M. Krauss’s new Quantum Man is a good choice if you want to focus on Feynman the scientist.

Consider a meeting devoted to Feynman, to the Los Alamos Project and the scientists who worked on it, or to scientists in general. The topic is rewarding, even for groups without a scientific bent.

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About the Author:

Neil Hollands is an Adult Services Librarian at Williamsburg Regional Library in Virginia, where he specializes in readers’ advisory and collection development. He is the author of Read On . . . Fantasy Fiction (2007) and Fellowship in a Ring: a Guide for Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Groups (2009).

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