Six Easy Pieces – Richard Feynman

Six Easy Pieces

I picked up Feynman’s 1964 book, Six Easy Pieces the other day. It has been released as part of a new collection of reprints from Penguin that sell for just NZ$12.95 each and, at that price, I’ll read just about anything.

And what a pleasant surprise!

This is a book about physics which would be enough to put most people off right from the start but it has a few things going for it. Firstly, it’s a pretty thin book (only 138 pages) which, combined with the word ‘easy’ in the title, reassures you that even if you’ve bitten off more than you can chew at least it will all be over in short order. Secondly, it’s written by the late Richard Feynman who, by all accounts was one of the smartest physicists of recent time as well as a damn fine artist and bongo player to boot.

The book is aimed at people who, like me, have a high school understanding of physics but little else. But I’m sure that whether you only vaguely understand that our world is made of atoms or you daydream about quantum entanglement, you’ll find this an entertaining and enlightening read.

As the title suggests, the book is broken into six chapters, each derived from lectures he gave at Caltech. The first, Atoms in Motion for me was perhaps the most staggering. It neatly explains how atoms work and how these workings relate to everything from heat to chemical structures and even why ice expands when cold while just about everything else contracts. Second is Basic Physics which gives a brief history of our understanding of the way the universe works and introduces an enormously useful analogy of science being like observers of a celestial chess game where we begin to notice patterns and rules but are nowhere near able to actually play the game ourselves because every once in a while we observe something completely left-field the equivalent of castling. Third is The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences where we see that the behaviour of atoms helps to explain the behaviour of chemicals which helps to explain the behaviour of rocks and living things. Fourth is Conservation of Energy which gets pretty mathematical but explains the relationship between the law and most (all?) of the equations that underpin physics as well as showing why the recently popular claims of free energy simply can’t happen. Fifth is The Theory of Gravitation which, after explaining the history behind our discoveries ends up concluding that we still have no idea what gravity is. And sixth and finally, the moment everyone waits for, Quantum Behaviour. Feynman walks us through analogies of experiments with particles and waves and then goes on to show that, at the level of the atom, nothing behaves like we expect it to. He shows that the maths is reliable but that we just can’t reconcile it with our natural understanding of the physical world. But all throughout the book he has been highlighting just how much we don’t know and this somehow turns my potential despair at quantum behaviour into a kind of exciting challenge that we can still make headway but that we might have to rely a little less on intuition and more on the evidence provided by experimentation.

In summary, if you spot the rack of bright orange books in your local bookstore, keep an eye out for this one and grab it if you can. It’ll only take a moment out of your life and, if you are only ever going to read one book about physics, this is definitely the book you should read. (I also managed to pick up Pinker’s The Language Instinct from the same collection too – that’s next on my list after I finish Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale and Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel).

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14 Responses to “Six Easy Pieces – Richard Feynman”

  1. Ian says:

    Feynman is amazing :)

    There is also a book called 6 Not So Easy Pieces which is also well worth a read although it takes a bit more effort. It covers vectors, symmetry, special relativity, relativistic energy & momentum, space-time, and curved space.

    I also recommend his other books, especially The Meaning of it All which is a record of three public lectures he gave under than name, and what are essentially his autobiographies Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman and its sequel, What do you care what other people think.

    Also check out this video of Feynman lecturing in Auckland:

  2. Damian says:

    Cheers Ian, I just started watching the first in the series but it timed out on me. Which is just as well really as I should be cracking back on with my work. I’ll watch it later!

  3. David W says:

    Hi Damian, wandered here from Open Parachute, all looks very interesting(and pretty!)

    This is the only one of the little list of books that end your post which I haven’t read, certainly on the to do list. I found The Language Instinct interesting in the typical Pinker-ish way of adding a million tiny facts into a thesis – I’m just not sure I needed to learn that much about Chomskyan grammar to get the point. Ancestors tale and Guns Germs and Steel are just plain awesome.

    (if you want yet more Feynman there is the the whole lecture series he delivered to Caltech first years from which the ’6 pieces’ are culled.

  4. Damian says:

    Hi David, welcome and thanks for the recommendation. I’m not sure I am willing to go too much deeper into physics at this stage as I’m on a bit of a philosophy, neuroscience and evolutionary biology binge at the moment. But I’ll certainly keep that series in mind for the future.

    If you are interested, I made a recent reading list and Ken did too at the same time.

  5. Damian & Ian,

    My first exposure to Feynman was his book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”. I really loved the book and I don’t know why I never got around to reading others. And now that’s all about to change! Thanks for the nudge, chaps!

  6. Just picked up both books: only US$11.16 for “Six Easy Pieces” and US$11.92 for “Six Not-So-Easy Pieces” on Amazon!

  7. Damian says:

    Nice work fella. You don’t muck around eh?

  8. Ken says:

    Saw the new series of Pengiuns in Borders last week and almost bought that book. Don’t know why I didn’t at that price – regret it now. I guess I was trying to keep my total price down as we only occasionally get to Auckland and seem to spend a fortune at Borders each time.

    Still I’ll keep my eye out for them in Hamilton.

    Thanks to the others for those links to the lectures. I will definitely follow them up.

  9. David W says:

    If you are interested, I made a recent reading list and Ken did too at the same time

    That looks like a great list, can I put one more author on your radar? I really like David Quammen, he takes a more literacy approach than a lot of ‘pop-sci’ authors but doesn’t skimp on details. I’ve just finished his short Darwin biography (The Kiwi’s Egg) and enjoyed The Song of the Dodo immensely.

  10. Another good tip for ‘white belt’ physicists is the abridged version of Stephen Hawkings ‘A History of Time’ called, rather appropriately ‘A Briefer History of Time’. Say what you like the first one was virtually indigestible to ‘Joe public’. This new condensed version, is bare-bones stuff, with heaps of diagrams, and up-dated content.
    Cheers. Paul

  11. ropata says:

    Hi Damien
    I saw the Feynmann book but wasn’t tempted as I have read pleanty of that sorta stuff already. IMHO Bryson is far more enjoyable, although a lot broader and less technical.

    On Feynmann himself:
    “When the Challenger disintegrated on launch Feynman was asked to be a menber of the investigatory commission. Had NASA brass known how this would end they might not have been so eager to invite him, but his effort was a beautiful and merciless instance of massacring bureaucracy in the service of truth.”

  12. Damian says:

    Ropata, Bryson’s Short History literally changed my life. I read it at a time when a lot of things were in the balance for me and it was just the right catalyst that led to a complete revision of some fundamental beliefs.

    In retrospect the book is not all that earth-shattering but, for me, it’ll probably go down as the most important book I read this decade. Big call.

  13. ropata says:

    Wow that’s pretty cool. I can’t say Bryson changed my life in that way, but books by Matt Ridley, Steven Pinker, Niall Fergusson have been a real eye-opener. Sometimes the best education is finding out for yourself.

  14. Dear Damian,

    I enjoyed visiting your site. Feynman has always been a favorite with me, but this books is news to me. Thanks, I will get a copy. Books published outside take a bit of time to reach India.

    Johnson C. Philip

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