Saturday, April 22, 2017

Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman is possibly the most famous physicist and popularizer of physics of the 20th Century. He was involved in the Manhattan Project, won a Nobel Prize, served on the Rogers Commission, which investigated the disaster of the space shuttle Challenger, and wrote several popular books on physics in addition to his scientific contributions.

One of those popular books was Six Easy Pieces. It is a collection of lectures prepared by Feynman for freshman and sophomore classes at California Institute of Technology (part of the larger collection Lectures on Physics).

It is also one of Feynman’s most popular books, possibly because of its breadth and simplicity. The book covers a wide range of physics from basic ideas about the structure of matter to physics in relation to other sciences, classical mechanics (Newton’s physics) and quantum mechanics.

It is easy in the sense that Feynman assumes his audience has a background in math and science typical of a high school graduate in 1962. There is very little math. Instead, Feynman takes an approach that focuses on commonly known facts, observation and reasoning. Readers won’t need a semester of calculus to follow this book.

Possibly the best thing about Six Easy Pieces is that it offers a view into the way a physicist thinks that is accessible to many people, even people with minimal scientific education. It is easy to think of science as an overwhelming pile of facts. Feynman’s book illustrates that science is also, and more importantly, a method of applying reason and experimentation to learn about the world we live in. The scientific understanding we have now was built on centuries of consideration, study, experimentation and evaluation that is often iterative, challenging, reconsidering and modifying scientific knowledge that was once widely accepted.

The book holds up well after more than 50 years. I might recommended it to a high schooler who is considering a career in science, especially physics, or anyone who is looking for an introduction or re-introduction to physics from someone who knew the subject well enough to not overcomplicate it.

If you’re interested in this book, you may also be interested in

A fictional version of Feynman appears in The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown by Paul Malmont (235).

Feynman, Richard P. Six Easy Pieces. New York: Basic Books, 1963.