the Little Red Reviewer

Richard Feynman helped me love Physics

Posted on: April 20, 2012

Six Easy Pieces, by Richard Feynman

Based on lectures given in 1963, the version I have was published in 1996

where I got it: owned

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I was never a very good formal student. Sure, I always liked school, and I liked learning and didn’t mind studying, but when it came to math and science it felt like the information was going in one ear and out the other. The learning of those subjects never felt like a conversation, it never felt like an interaction. It just felt like work.

The greatest teachers of whatever they are teaching make it feel like a conversation. They make physics and chemistry and “how things work” feel like you are witnessing something between passion and magic. Their love for the topic makes people want to learn more. If we are lucky, those passionate teachers record their thoughts.

I discovered the writings of the famous physicist  Richard Feynman when I was in high school, but it would be years before his books made much sense to me. That’s not to say high schoolers shouldn’t read him, they most definitely should, it’s just that the material was beyond me when I was that age.  My first book of his was Six Easy Pieces (and yes, I did eventually go on to purchase  the follow up Six Not so Easy Pieces).   The Six Pieces are the nearly exact dictations of lectures Feynman gave at CalTech in the early 1960’s.  Instead of focusing on formulas and so and so’s law of such and such, Feynman uses easy to understand examples and his vibrant personality and pure love of the subject to invite us into his conversation.

no, the other kind of strange quark!

Originally planned as lectures,  Feynman breaks down the basics of physics, both classical and quantum in six short chapters.  The lectures include stories, improvisations, approximations, and hypothetical conversations on everything from gravitation to strange quarks to perpetual motion and how physics relates to the other sciences. Free of heavy math and scientific jargon, the Laws of Physics are generally compared to learning to play chess by watching two other players,  Conservation of Energy is shown through a story about Dennis the Menace hiding his toys (and his mother having to find them), the concept of “partricles with zero mass” is actually explained in a way I could understand, and the chapter on quantum particles starts by describing them as “not like anything you have ever seen”.  In that final chapter on quantum physics, Feynman is obviously torn between continually having to refer to the classical “laws of physics”, and confusing the student by having to say “yes, but those laws don’t work here, and now I have to figure out a simple way to show how things really work”.

If you have any interest in physics, in the science behind your favorite space operas, in the reason that no one can hear you scream in space, give Richard Feynman a read.  Six Easy Pieces is around 150 pages, and it won’t fry your brain, I promise.

There’s a nearly fractal quality to physics. The very simplified picture (Newton’s Laws, etc) can be drawn pencil and paper and functions perfectly well, most of the time. But as you dig deeper and discover the complexity of the magnified underlying patterns, the image morphs into something completely different that shows only transformations of the original.  Asymptotically, we’re are always learning more.  But we will never know everything there is to know, and even better, we have no idea how much is there is know, so we can’t even know how close we are to knowing everything.  Scientifically speaking, isn’t that the most wonderful thing in the world?

Feynman was never embarrassed about everything we don’t know yet, even with the help of  physics. In fact, he revels in the not knowing.  Physics can predict what should happen. The math will give us a better idea of what should happen (even when the math completely contradicts what actually happens), but we can never be 100% sure about what exactly will happen to each individual electron at each moment during the experiment. And when the experiment yeilds different results than expected? Guess what – physicists are in heaven trying to figure out what happened.

I imagine the xkcd comic would look something like this:

The beautiful thing is that we have no idea where that vertical line is, or if it even exists.

At the time, Feynman was on the cutting edge of particle physics and quantum dynamics. Along with Sin-Itero Tomanaga and Julian Schwinger he won the Nobel prize for Physics in 1965 for work on th theory of quantum electrodynamics.   We know so much more now than we did then.   So why do I read physics books from the 1960’s?  the same reason I read science fiction that was written in the 30s, the same reason we still read Shakespeare. It’s our foundation. (yes, I know if I wanted a foundation I could be reading Jules Verne or the works of Sir Isaac Newton. I’m a total hypocrite and don’t feel like going back quite that far)

These days, it’s all  about being an expert. it’s all about saying “we know this is be a fact”. Our society looks down on people who say “I yet don’t know for certain”, looks down even further on those who say “We may never know”.  Feynman knows many things for certain.  He knows more facts than I will ever know in my entire life.  But he revels in the unknown, the uncertain. And that is what makes science and physics so beautiful – the more we learn, the more we realize we don’t know.

And you know what?  asking questions about everything, being curious about everything, that’s one of the things that got me into science fiction in the first place. The answers are pretty damn cool, but I’m more interested in the journey.

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5 Responses to "Richard Feynman helped me love Physics"

Hi Red. I really enjoyed reading Feynman’s stuff back in the day when I was a physics major. You might enjoy his autobiographical stuff, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, and Why do You Care What Other People Think.

I’ve got Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman (and adore it), but I’m not familiar with the other one. Shall have to fix that!!

Thanks for this review. I really need to find books like this on maths and science for my young sis. I’ll have to look this up.

For me, math and most science (I was pretty good at botany and horticulture) was more like bouncing off than going in one ear and out the other. It never made it inside at all… This one sounds good.

Love Feynman; nice review!

I’m pretty sure the curve is asymptotic… ;-)

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