Thursday, August 04, 2011

Freeman Dyson: "The 'Dramatic Picture' of Richard Feynman"

Dyson reviews a couple of recent books on Richard Feynman -- a scientific biography by Lawrence Krauss and a comic-book biography by Jim Ottaviani, with art by Leland Myrick. Both get a very good rating from Dyson. Here's an excerpt on the essence -- 'the central theme' -- of Feynman's scientific work:

The central theme of Feynman’s work as a scientist was to explore a new way of thinking and working with quantum mechanics. The book succeeds in explaining without any mathematical jargon how Feynman thought and worked. This is possible because Feynman visualized the world with pictures rather than with equations. Other physicists in the past and present describe the laws of nature with equations and then solve the equations to find out what happens. Feynman skipped the equations and wrote down the solutions directly, using his pictures as a guide. Skipping the equations was his greatest contribution to science. By skipping the equations, he created the language that a majority of modern physicists speak. Incidentally, he created a language that ordinary people without mathematical training can understand. To use the language to do quantitative calculations requires training, but untrained people can use it to describe qualitatively how nature behaves.

Along the way, we learn the difference between the comic-book literary forms manga and gekiga:

... The genre of serious comic-book literature was highly developed in Japan long before it appeared in the West. The Ottaviani-Myrick book is the best example of this genre that I have yet seen with text in English. Some Western readers commonly use the Japanese word manga to mean serious comic-book literature. According to one of my Japanese friends, this usage is wrong. The word manga means “idle picture” and is used in Japan to describe collections of trivial comic-book stories. The correct word for serious comic-book literature is gekiga, meaning “dramatic picture.” The Feynman picture-book is a fine example of gekiga for Western readers.