There is not much more to be said about Richard Feynman’s impact on physics or science communication; the man is as bona-fide legend and as close to being a worshipable God as scientists can have.
Six Easy Pieces is a collection of the ‘easiest’ six chapters from Richard Feynman’s most-celebrated text book, The Feynman Lectures on Physics.
The ‘easy’ in the title, is, like our sense of time, all relative. The lectures, delivered in the early 60’s, were aimed at “the most intelligent in the class [freshman and sophomore physics students at Caltech, one of the most prestigious institutions in the world] and to make sure, if possible, that even the most intelligent student was unable to encompass everything…”
We, as the general reader, are more like the ‘secondary’ audience for the lectures, who for Feyman at the time were the students “for whom the extra fireworks are merely disquieting and who cannot be expected to learn the material in the lecture at all”. Such was Feynman’s power of exposition, however, you can follow the science, each chapter getting progressively more complicated and abstract, without ever feeling like you’re being left behind.
The first three chapters, on Atoms in Motion, Basic Physics, and the Relation of Physics to Other Sciences, were so good I read them twice. Their broad remit means they touch on lots of different things, with one astonishing idea thrown in after the other. Mind-body dualism from a physicists perspective: “When an animal learns something, it can do something different than it could before, and its brain cells must have changed too, if it is made out of atoms. In what way is it different ?”
The final three chapters, on the Conservation of Energy, the Theory of Gravitation and Quantum behaviour are a little heavier, but no less interesting. There’s the occasional formula, which immediately starts the eyes glazing over, but, to the lay reader, they serve to remind you just how much of the book is mathematics translated into wonderful, approachable prose. I’ve read about things like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle or the “double-slit” experiment, which showed that at the quantum level particles behave both waves and particles, many times before, but is actually the first time that I really *got it*. For that, I cannot recommend the book enough.
For those looking for more pop-physics in a similar vein, I can really recommend Why Does E=MC2 by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw, Quantum by Manjit Kumar and Black Holes, Worm Holes and Time Machines by Jim Al-Khalili. Having now read Six Easy Pieces, I can see the obvious influence of Feynman on the not just their content but their delivery and style.
There are also three prefaces to the edition of the book I read. Paul Davies’ introduction and David Goldstein’s special preface set the backdrop to the book and the lectures. The most interesting preface is the one written by Feynman himself for the original edition, in which he talks about how he set about piecing the course together, who it was aimed at and why, and how ultimately he felt that he had let his students down in some way. It shows just how much thought he put into the lectures and just how much he cared about educating his students. In some way, as someone enjoys teaching and talking about science, I learnt a lot from these few pages as I did from the rest of the book.
Its 50 years since The Feynman Lectures on Physics were published. Our understanding of the universe, and particularly quantum mechanics, has moved on in leaps and bounds but at no point did Six Easy Pieces feel like it was out of date because Feynman’s timeless ways of explaining complicated physics in uncomplicated ways.