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A book about how the simple goal of trying to go to Tuva with Richard Feynman inexorably leads to organizing the largest museum exhibit to travel between the USSR and the United States. No, really.

In the late 1970s, Leighton, a longtime friend of Feynman's, was at his house for dinner; the conversation worked around to the question of what happened to Tannu Tuva, a nation at that time mostly known to stamp collectors because of the beautiful and unique stamps it put out in the 1930s. The answer is that it became part of the USSR and is currently still kind of part of Russia, although China and Mongolia also have claims and it would rather like to be independent again. It is known nowadays primarily for Tuvian throatsinging, a technique in which a single person is able to sing more than one note at the same time. (If I could find it, I'd upload you a Tuvian throatsinging cover of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. Maybe it's better for everyone that I appear to have mislaid it.)

Of course, nowadays one can find out a great deal about Tuva simply by Googling, and I suspect it is difficult but not ridiculously hard to get there. But Leighton and Feynman, who were intrigued by the entire question of where the stamps came from, were working before the internet and before cell phones and in the days of Soviet bureaucracy, specifically Intourist, whose job was basically to keep tourists from going off the beaten path. Finding anything about Tuva at all involved trawling research libraries, spending large amounts of time with Tuvan-Russian and Russian-English dictionaries, and writing letters to a staggering number of scholars. Actually trying to go to Tuva involved trying to figure out an excuse: since Tuva did not have an Intourist office, going as a tourist was not possible. Thus the museum; Leighton figured that after bringing to the US a massive display of Tuvan and Scythian and Kazakh artifacts, which had already toured Sweden, they could get into Tuva as associates of whatever museum agreed to host the exhibit.

Which is how you get a high school geography teacher and a Nobel laureate in physics as the beginning liaisons between, among other institutions, the Smithsonian, and the Soviets. In the middle 1980s.

As a book qua book, this is not amazing; Leighton's prose is rather lackluster, his organizational schema is peculiar, and he has an attitude towards life that can best be summarized as 'enthusiastically endorsing those Esalen people', which should tell you. He also hero-worships Feynman amazingly, which is probably fair, but does not make for nuanced descriptions of the man. However, as a story about what can happen to a person, given careful research, incredible stubbornness, and a willingness to network and ask for what one wants, it is amazing and continuously unpredictable. As a snapshot of how much the world has changed in the last couple of decades, it's also quite impressive. I remember trying to research some geography questions that were very much less obscure for a contest when I was about eleven, pre-internet. A helpful librarian and I spent quite a while ransacking the three floors of the largest library near me, and got precisely nothing. I would have had to go to a larger city and repeat the whole process. Nowadays-- well, I'm not joking, I used to have a copy of 'Love Will Tear Us Apart' as covered by Tuvian throatsingers, and there's a Mongolian rock band I occasionally pay attention to on Myspace.

This is a book that I can see handing to kids in the future and explaining about how there used to be this thing called the Soviet Union, and you used to have to string wire from place to place to make a phone call, and this is the kind of story that you get out of the coinciding of those historical facts.

It's also pretty damn entertaining, but then I like obsessive people.


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