TUVA OR BUST! by Ralph Leighton
(a book review by Mark R. Leeper)

One of the great scientists of the 20th century was Richard Feynman. Feynman got a doctorate in physics from Princeton and went to work at the Manhattan Project. There his whimsical nature and his ability to think "outside the box" made a real reputation for himself. He taught himself to crack safes in order to demonstrate security holes at America's most secret project. By 1951 he was a professor at Caltech which he remained until his death in 1988. His lectures on physics have become classics in book and film form. Feynman Diagrams are a visual way to describe subatomic particles he invented in 1948 and remain in heavy use to the present. He also was considered a great bongo player. He had a wild sense of humor and loved telling stories about his exploits. The stories were collected by a Ralph Leighton and published in two delicious volumes, SURELY YOU'RE JOKING, MR. FEYNMAN and WHAT DO YOU CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK? He was appointed to the Rogers Commission to investigate the Challenger Disaster. He traced the cause of the disaster to the rubber O-ring seals which failed to function in the wintry temperatures of the Challenger launch. These are just highlights of a great career. Any books about Feynman should be fascinating and most are. TUVA OR BUST! would seem on the surface to be one such book, but it is a serious disappointment.

The book is by Ralph Leighton, the close friend of Feynman who collected stories for the above two books. Leighton was something of a traveler and thought he knew geography until Feynman asked him whatever happened to Tannu Tuva. Feynman remembered from his youthful days of stamp collecting that there were triangular and diamond-shaped stamps supposedly from a place called Tannu Tuva. [See comments at the end of the review.] Leighton was stumped and the two began researching the place. When they found out that the capitol was Kyzyl they decided they had to visit any place that has such a strange spelling. It seems to have become an obsession with the two (or at least Leighton). The book TUVA OR BUST! is Leighton's memoir of his search and plans to visit Tannu Tuva with Feynman. Most of the book's illustrations are photographs featuring Richard Feynman. Leighton lets us know over and over what good friends the two of them were. He drops stories of going to parties with Feynman, playing bongos with him, having Feynman as the best man at his wedding, etc. However, little of Feynman's wit comes through in the writing.

Instead, we have a longish account of Leighton's travails in trying to arrange a trip to Tannu Tuva in Outer Mongolia, part of the Soviet Union, during the Cold War. The account is highly detailed and much of it leaves one wondering why we are being told much of what is in the book. The same story made an entertaining hour documentary for the BBC, "Horizon--The Quest for Tannu Tuva" (a.k.a. "The Last Journey of a Genius"). However that same charm spread over two hundred pages, even with wide margins, is a little thin. Much of it is about Leighton butting heads with bureaucracy heightened by international tensions. Contending with the bureaucracies is a major effort. The story is a race against time as early on Richard Feynman is diagnosed with cancer. The book does not focus closely enough on Feynman to track his failing health, but is puts some pressure on Leighton to solve the problems necessary to arrange a visit. It is hard to feel a lot of concern in spite of this because Leighton repeats over and over that one of the chief attractions for the two is the spelling of Kyzyl.

The path to arranging the trip is arduous and requires more than ten years. During this time we observe form an arm's length what is happening in the international competition between the United States and the USSR. We here about the Challenger crash. The pair makes discoveries like finding pieces of the throat-singing music that can be found only in Tannu Tuva. Incidentally, the book comes with a plastic record of with a sample of the music. Samples can be found at http://www.ubu.com/ethno/soundings/tuva.html.

The book is mostly about Leighton, many of whose journeys were made alone, yet it repeatedly keeps mentioning that there is a connection to Feynman, lest we forget. Leighton bets on the mentioning of Feynman keeping the book interesting and loses that bet. If the traveling partner were some unknown Joe Smith the account would probably have a very much smaller readership. Other stories include how the two go on bongo playing forays. We read about Russian restaurants and how bad the service is. We are introduced to various Eastern Europeans, some of whom are helpful and some are not.

I would recommend this book really only to people who have already read SURELY YOU'RE JOKING, MR. FEYNMAN and WHAT DO YOU CARE WHAT OTHER PEOPLE THINK? They are more entertaining and give the reader much more of a feel for Richard Feynman.

Incidentally, I am informed by a stamp collector that the Tannu Tuva stamps that started the whole proceedings probably never saw Tannu Tuva and were never used for postage. Apparently the future Nobel Prize winner was taken in by some fraudulent stamps. My friend showed me a few. Though cancelled, they have full gum on the back, indicating that they served no postal purpose. The postmarks carefully never obscure the pictures on the stamps, so that they can be sold to unwary collectors. Perhaps some government official gave permission in return for a cut of the take.

					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2008 Mark R. Leeper