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).