Travels of a Thermodynamicist

Literature has presented us with many scientists who are elegant and powerful stylists: Loren Eisley, Richard Selzer, Freeman Dyson, Richard Feynman, Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Dawkins. These science-trained authors are able to convey gracefully their most subtle observations about the natural universe in sentences worthy of Flaubert. And then, on the other hand, we have Rick Fleeter. Reading Fleeter’s new book, Travels of a Thermodynamicist, is like watching Dave Barry channel Lester Bangs at his stream-of-consciousness peak, like navigating through the Unabomber manifesto after it’s been redacted by Dustin Hoffman in his Rain Man mode. If The Triplets of Belleville were journalism, Rick Fleeter would win a Pulitzer. Thus, the experience of reading Fleeter is not altogether enjoyable or easy. And yet — somehow there emerges a portrait of the author and his life that is, to a certain degree, both charming and illuminating. We get to inhabit fully the perspective of a geeky outsider with something funny and clever to tell us. A university professor and aerospace entrepreneur, Fleeter is also an avid bicyclist and triathalon participant. The majority of the essays here concern his long-distance bike rides, during which he records physics-flavored observations both na‹vely acute and acutely na‹ve, concerning the people and places he passes. In essence, this book is a blog: evidently self-published and unfiltered, with minimal attention to formatting or design. If you lived next door to Fleeter, you’d share these rambling reminiscences over your common fence with a beer in hand on a summer night, and then go home pleasantly bemused at your quirky, likable neighbor.