Review: Feynman

book reviews

Feynman
Feynman by Jim Ottaviani
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I firmly believe that the majority of the teachers, administrators, nurses, janitors, and clerical staff at my high school were in on a huge joke at my expense. How else does one explain the poor advising, the lack of college preparation, and the blatantly untrue facts I that were imparted unto me on a daily basis. If there was no joke, I am very sad in a Kurt Vonnegut sort of way, for at least there would have been something funny to look back at.

“Ha!” I’d say, “Perhaps I emerged from high school with the knowledge base of a freshly hatched sparrow with encephalitis, but at least someone had a laugh.”

As it turns out (of so I believe), there was no joke. Not an intentional one, anyway. I guess it was more Vonnegut than I ever gave it credit for until now. Huh. Whatevs. What I’m trying to say is that my teachers were fucktards, the advice I received from student advisors was fucktarded, and the experience of attending school there was fucktarding to an extreme.

It all started when I was in eighth grade. Advisors came into my science class as the year was drawing to a close in order to help the ignorant masses of my middle school determine what class to take. They recommended that everyone in my class take a course called “Intro to Science.” It was all well and fine in my mind; we were all in the same class now, so it made sense that we’d take the same class next year, right?

You can imagine my surprise when on the first day of “Intro to Science” I am confronted by the cast of Dangerous Minds or, for those of you with a more sophisticated frame of reference Class Act. I’m talking the class Kid shows up to. It was awful. The students who weren’t drooling onto the tabletops were setting fire to the chalkboards. Did you even know chalkboards could burn? Now you do. You can put that one in the bank. At some point, the majority of the kids in my eighth grade class had advisors who steered them in the direction of the higher level courses (biology, chemistry) that would put them on the path to a college education. Me? I was learning to keep my crayon marks inside of the lines on my oxygen molecule coloring sheet and learning the scientific method as it was written for kindergarteners in 1952.

They did this to me a couple of times. With both math and science. You’d think with the way they tried to derail my math and science education that I was a girl! After “Intro to Science” I finally made it to biology, but then they redirected me to Earth Science (I had yet to learn the phrase “Rocks for Jocks”), which was another step in the wrong direction. In math, they had me take trigonometry, rather than going with the algebra-centric curriculum that would be helpful to me later in college, but I digress. So there are four years of high school, right? First year, I took Science for Burgeoning Fucktards, second I took Biology, and third I took Rocks for Jocks. Since I’m only working with a passing knowledge of how to calculate right angles, I think that only comes to three. And, if my subtraction skills are as good as my addition, that leaves one. Four take away three is one.

I was an angry young man by the time I hit my senior year. I had planned on going to college, but that goddamned school had all but derailed those plans. Why would a fine institution like ASU accept someone with such a shoddy science background? I decided to make up for it. Big time.

My advisor was surprised when I said that I wanted to take Physics.

“But you don’t have the necessary prerequisites!” she exclaimed, sparking up her crack pipe.

But, using the skills I’d gleaned from a shitton of introductory level classes, I was able to persuade her. And, because she was more interested in lighting up than she was invested in the argument, I got to take physics.

Physics was, by far, the best science class I’d ever taken. I was learning the formulas behind every day things. For example, we covered the shape of sound waves (I was in a punk rock band at the time, and I used those things!) and inertia and shit (I regularly moved). I even got the chance to snap a classmate (who happened to be my best friend) in the chest with a thirty foot long spring! This, however, is not the part of the story where everything ends well.

For the most part, physics didn’t make any sense. I understood that things happened in the universe and that physics was supposed to explain why those events took place. And I understood that all of that shit could be expressed mathematically. But I never really understood. It was one thing to use math equations to get a satisfactory score on a test, but another entirely to understand why light happens.

When I picked up this book, I was skeptical. It looked boring as all fuck (as far as a graphic novel is concerned), but the cover really jumped out at me. I took it home and immediately became engrossed. It was all I wanted to read. If you can believe it, I didn’t know who the fuck Richard Feynman was. I knew Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project (mostly from comic book movies), but this guy, this Nobel Prize winning guy, I had never heard of. How, I ask, could I have taken any kind of physics course and not have heard his name? Fuck you, Mr. Beatty!

This weekend, I learned of the dizzying effects that physics can have. I finally started to grasp the very basics of why. I learned that quantum mechanics isn’t that hippy shit that went into What the Bleep Do We Know? I learned why time travel is theoretically possible- and it all has to do with light! How fucking awesome is that?!

I will be reading Feynman’s books. He is a genius (there is no question about that), but, more importantly, he is funny and relatable. True, he put in a lot of the legwork on the construction of the most devastating weapon in the history of mankind, but nobody’s perfect. If you know a kid who is having trouble with physics or has to read a biography but doesn’t want to read something boring, steer him/her this way. Feynman’s visual manner of thinking translates very well into a graphic novel format. I totally dug it. As far as this particular type of media is concerned, for me, it will be to nonfiction what Scott Pilgrim is to fiction.

God bless.

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6 thoughts on “Review: Feynman

  1. For me, I got lucky. I was in middle school when I learned that some teachers are utterly and completely full of shit. It was one of my middle school teachers who held aloft the torch of “I’M HERE TO COLLECT A CHEQUE AND GO HOME” and educated me in the way of the slacker teacher, and he did so through the act of repeatedly losing assignments that students handed in.

    And thus, we’d have to do them again. (At least we did, until I got my parents involved.)

    Back when I was five, I got interested in science in a big way thanks to a little documentary series called Cosmos. Through that I just started reading anything that appealed to me and someone suggested I try books by the clown prince of science, Dr. Richard Feynman. So I learned about his theories, how he passed the time at Los Alamos with a little safecracking and lockpicking hobby, how he lost his beloved wife to TB, and how he was one of the greatest teachers of all time… so unlike 99% of the science teachers I had in school.

    The world would have a cache of scientifically literate people if only 25% of the world’s science teachers gave half as much of a damn about teaching as Feynman did. The man was a national treasure. If you’re going to read more, may I suggest “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feyman”? It’s absolutely superb.

  2. I will give “Surely You’re joking” a read. Thanks, Dan!

    And thanks for sharing your story. I had this kind of blind faith in teachers when I was in junior high. Like I believed cops protected and firemen put out fires. Some god from a Kurt Vonnegut novel was fucking with me. Big time.

    1. There’s a lecture that Feynman gave at Caltech about his time working on the atomic bomb project. Both hilarious and fascinating.

      You can find a transcript online…but to get the full effect you really need to hear it in Feynman’s own voice. I will post a link to the audio this evening.

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