Book Review: Tuva Or Bust!

English: American physicist Richard Feynman Po...
English: American physicist Richard Feynman Português: Físico americano Richard Feynman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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I think for most geeks, Richard Feynman is a bit of a hero. A Nobel-winning physicist who had a complete and infectious desire for knowledge in all its forms and a desire to share that knowledge with anyone who was interested, delivered in a way that’s less “Look how much I know” and more “Isn’t this NEAT?!” made him a popular fellow. Not to mention that he was absolutely brilliant. His more popular books Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? share his humor, brilliance and interest in wide-ranging activities (including safe-cracking and drumming), while his harder science books (like Six Easy Pieces) are written in a way that neither talks down to the reader, nor over their head.

Tuva Or Bust! sadly was not written by Feynman, as he died just before the story was finished, but instead by his longtime friend and collaborator (who was instrumental in putting together Surely You’re Joking and What Do You Care), Ralph Leighton. Leighton’s voice is very similar to Feynman’s (perhaps as he DID have such a hand in those books!), and like Feynman, his desire to learn and understand the world is friendly, warm and, above all, compelling.

The book outlines a decade-long attempt for Feynman and Leighton to visit the (then even more obscure than it is now) Republic of Tuva (formerly Tannu Tuva, Tuvinskaya ASSR and very long ago, Uriankhai), then a part of the Soviet Union (and now a part of the Russian Federation). Tuva is just north of Mongolia, in southern Siberia. Feynman’s interest in Tuva first started as a young boy interested in philately, and the stamps that came from Tuva were colorful and in triangular and diamond shapes. While the stamps started everything, what sealed the deal for him and Leighton was when they discovered the capital of Tuva, Kyzyl, had no vowels in the name. At that moment, they both decided that they must visit.

Being part of the USSR, this was a little difficult — particularly a part of the USSR that most people hadn’t heard of. The first attempts were through normal channels, namely the USSR’s Intourist agency, but as there was no office in Tuva, that was a no go. The two men, in trying to figure out other ways to get to Tuva found as many books as they could on the subject (which wasn’t really very many), and ended up recruiting Glen Cowan, a grad student in physics who also was fluent in Russian, to help with the cause.

After a few false-starts, they end up making contacts in Russia and end up arranging a museum exhibition to come to the US, in exchange for sending the three of them to Tuva; this isn’t exactly immediate in the best of situations, but dealing with a country that the United States doesn’t exactly have the warmest of relations with makes it even slower going. The political stage ends up having quite an effect — it almost seems that whenever they’re about to get things going, something happens — Chernobyl, the shooting down of a Korean airliner, the Challenger explosion, to name just a few.

Unfortunately Feynman, who’d been battling cancer for a few years, had died shortly before he would have got the letter officially inviting him to Tuva. Though this does throw another wrench in the works, the rest of his party (which has also grown in number to more than just Leighton and Cowan) eventually gets to make it to Tuva.

It’s a very interesting book, and as one would expect from something involving Richard Feynman, a good-natured, intelligent and wonderful story. And, the cool thing is, the informal society Ralph Leighton set up (almost accidentally!), Friends of Tuva still exists, and you can visit them on the web… and the site is still updated with lots of new information about Tuva as well as a FAQ that gives a rough outline of the history and other information.

The particularly interesting thing for me, though, is how it seems that Feynman’s interest in Tuva really fired up the whole world; not too long after that, Tuvan throat-singing (or höomei) became known throughout the world. The most famous throat-singers, Huun-Hurr-Tu, even recorded with Frank Zappa and Johnny “Guitar” Watson shortly before Zappa’s death. That’s pretty amazing, that the obsession of a famous physicist can lead to a strange and wonderful combination of music as that, but, honestly, that kind of magic doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary for Richard Feynman, even now that he’s gone.


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