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Richard Feynman : Tuva or Bust

One of the great creative minds of our time, the Nobel prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman never actually made it to the then mysterious land of Tuva nor did he write the book Tuva or Bust, yet his name is always associated with that mysterious land. Thanks to his adventurous restless spirit and his unquenchable obsessive  curiosity, this tiny country deep in the central Asian heartland, which was long isolated as a  part of the soviet empire during the cold war days, is no longer mysterious, and is  now an open land quite well known and even a popular tour destination for some culture vultures in the west. Feynman was the catalyst who made all this possible.

Although he was  a leading genius in the rarefied fields of advanced Mathematics  and Quantum Physics, Feynman was also known as a prankster (as well as an eccentric, a juggler, safecracker, bongo player, amateur painter, an expert on Maya hieroglyphs, among others). So when, during an after-dinner banter around 1977 he asked his long time friend and 'drumming partner' Ralph Leighton about the latest news from Tannu Tuva, Leighton guessed that Feynman was obviouslty kidding. Eventually it turned out that Feynman was not kidding and there indeed was a place  with a name like that.  So  the two friends started on their long research, with the famous observation: "a place that's spelled K-Y-Z-Y-L has just "got" to be interesting!", an obvious reference to the Tuvan capitol Kyzyl - a place name with no proper vowel. Their research was serious and painstaking, during which they learned a lot about the Tuvan culture and enough of the language to communicate with Tuvans in Tuvan, and of course the Tuvan art of throat-singing. These topics are familiar to us now, but at that time there was no internet, and Google hadn't entered the lexicon yet. 

Tuva or Bust! is sub-titled "Richard Feynman's Last Journey"; but the 'last journey'  never happened!  After years of frustration, red tape and finally  ill health, Feynman died just before all the arrangements were finalized. Ralph Leighton did go and wrote this book to describe his own adventures. Quite interesting, good, informative but there are fewer references to Feynman as the book sort of plods on. It's probably an unfair critique but one cannot help feeling the absence of that Feynman magic; some devoted fans are obviously disappointed. Those unfamiliar with his sparkling wit, casual style, humor and spirit of mischief, should try Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! for a very enjoyable reading experience. Interested music lovers should visit music without borders  for browsing links to music from Tuva and other exotic places.


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