Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

August 11, 2009

Six Easy Pieces (Richard P. Feynman)

What better way to follow up five moral pieces than with six easy ones?

Subtitled “Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher”, the six easy pieces are drawn from Richard P. Feynman's The Feynman Lectures on Physics (1963, originally prepared for publication by Robert B. Leighton and Matthew Sands). That Lectures book is chosen by Discover magazine as one of the top 25 science books of all time. Feynman’s work joins such quaint books as Newton’s Principia (1687) and Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859), and modern science texts such as Einstein's Relativity (1916) and Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962).

The lecture-pieces are collected with a view of compiling the six easiest chapters in the Lectures. Reading them is like attending an introductory course to physics. It is definitely a painless approach to the subject considering that the entire Lectures edition (definitive and extended) runs in three volumes and weighs 10.8 pounds! Pieces is to laymen as Lectures is to physicists.

Pieces is also an introduction to the Feynman style or the Feynman approach to physics. In the introduction to the book, by Paul Davies, the Feynman style is described as “a mixture of reverence and disrespect for received wisdom.” The reader will appreciate the truth of this conflicting description soon enough. Indeed, reverence and disrespect goes hand in hand in the discussion of physical concepts in the book and they are not mutually exclusive.

The Feynman style is a rebellious way of dealing with scientific ideas, in the sense that it questions everything and tries to put into context the history of science as developed by its conscientious scientists and philosophers. The reader is then cautioned to not expect a conventional treatment of physics as he is in for an enjoyable and “tantalizing” taste of the Feynman style of learning and, for me, teaching the subject.

The prefatory materials did well to introduce the readers to the content of the book and to water down the expectations they may have had prior to reading it. It is not meant to be a comprehensive introduction but a good enough jump off point for anyone with just a slight curiosity about the subject. The first preface by two of Feynman’s colleagues serve to contextualize the background of the actual lectures in Caltech, how they came about, the objectives of the lectures, and the actual reception of the students to the live lectures.

The second preface is by Feynman himself, unedited as it sometimes refers to pieces not actually included in the book. Feynman explains the lecturer’s after-the-fact view of his own achievement. The lecturer himself feigns failure in his interaction with his students—which really is a measure of his humble and discreet character. He may not be too successful in the original batch of his students but I think his future students are indebted to this work.

Six Easy Pieces really is a glimpse of two things: the subject of physics and the teacher himself. Feynman is one of the charismatic physicists the twentieth century has produced. He is born in 1918 in Brooklyn, and received his doctorate from Princeton in 1942. His teaching stints in Cornell and Caltech earned him notoriety for the unorthodox approaches and methods he brought to the subject.

For his pioneering work in quantum electrodynamics, he was made a co-winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics. He died in 1988, leaving behind a legacy of books, technical publications, original theoretical works, and unique approaches to teaching.

The book is mostly a transcript of the actual spoken lectures in an actual class, and so it does read like a script. There are many instances when Feynman injects some jokes and ad-lib surprises into the material. The minimum of mathematics, if at all, makes this introduction very friendly and will be cherished by anyone easily deterred by anything containing plus, minus, and equal signs, exponents, and algebraic formulations.

The real spirit of the book is in Feynman. The lectures are given in such a way as to cultivate in the reader (whether a teacher, student, or otherwise) the fundamental aspects of physics as the most fundamental of sciences.

I wish that I have read the book myself during my college struggles when I dreaded the alienating presentation of physics in textbooks and the robotic explanations of learned professors. But I am still lucky to have read this now as a physics teacher myself. I have been teaching the course in a local university for two semesters now.

My view of this book then is influenced by two perspectives: that of the (perpetual) student's and that of the teacher's. I must say that both have been enriched by Feynman’s physics course in this book. As a student, I thoroughly appreciated Feynman’s gentle approach to the subject. As a teacher, I commend his genius grasp of the subject matter and his apt analogies when trying to demystify the almost “otherworldly” ideas of quantum mechanics and gravitation. I am inspired by the way he constructs his surprising parallelisms of physical ideas: he leads me to think for myself some creative metaphors to compare with physical phenomena and matter.

For a teacher, it is a great aid to be able to deduce ways of making topics that are fairly new to students, (such as the uncertainty principle) comprehensible and digestible. The lively manner in which Feynman shared his free-wheeling and alert thoughts, jumping from the words on the page, is itself a physical event—teleportation maybe. I can just imagine how the living Feynman must have struck awe to the listeners of his lectures.

My only reservation is that portions of the book are now obviously dated. Certain materials covered are no longer sufficient to explain the current findings and status of physics. For example, the explanation on fundamental particles (still incomplete at the time of Lectures) does not contain reference to the Standard Model which, although still incomplete, is the more generally accepted explanation of that idea. The new developments in modern physics could have been included as an appendix or afterword of the book.

Going back to what the book’s editors are trying to accomplish, I think it answers well to the purposes to which the pieces are brought together:

The six pieces, are they easy?Yes. In fact, there’s another Feynman collection of six other topics collected under the title (what else could it be) Six Not-So-Easy Pieces. On my wish list is the omnibus of these two books called (not-so-surprisingly) Six Easy Pieces and Six Not-So-Easy Pieces. I'm also looking out for his surely candid bio, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!

Do the lecture-pieces represent the “essential of physics” as the subtitle suggests?—Yes. They cover the basic introduction to atoms, basic physics, the relation of physics to other fields of study, the law of conservation of energy, the law of universal gravitation, and quantum mechanics.

Are the pieces explained brilliantly, as also suggested in the subtitle?Yes, the brilliance is inspiring.

Is it ultimately a good reference for students and teachers?—It works for me. Where previously I lack focus, I believe that I’m a better instructor for it.

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