Six Easy Pieces


in Books and literature, Geek stuff, Science, Writing

In 1964, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman gave a series of introductory lectures on physics to undergraduate students at CalTech. Six Easy Pieces is an abbreviated version, with six chapters on the essential elements of modern physics including atomic theory, conservation of energy, gravitation, quantum mechanics, and the relation of physics to other sciences.

The lectures highlight Feynman’s particular style, in that they are engaging and accessible. The book contains hardly any mathematics and – aside from one dated and strangely detailed departure into categorizing elementary particles – everything in the book should be reasonably accessible to anyone with a passing knowledge of science. At many points, Feynman identifies things that were unknown to science in 1964. Contemporary readers may find themselves wondering how much has changed in the intervening time. Indeed, it would probably be a valuable exercise for somebody to write an update. Ideally, a talented science writer like Simon Singh who could bring a talent in expression to the update that would mirror that in the individual.

Feynman does accord some space to more philosophical issues, such as defining ‘science’. He repeatedly asserts that: “Experiment is the sole judge of scientific truth” and uses that criterion to distinguish it from other kinds of knowledge, including mathematics.

The best thing about the book may be some of the elegant ways in which Feynman explains fundamental truths about the universe, and how they relate to each other. He doesn’t simply assert things like the nature of gravitational attraction or Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, but in many cases illustrates how they arise from other pieces of known physics. For instance, Feynman elegantly explains how Kepler’s Laws on planetary motion can be elaborated into Newton’s universal theory of gravitation.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

EK November 18, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Sounds great! Please sign me up on the lending list.

m November 19, 2010 at 8:48 am

Feynman taught the undergraduate introductory physics course at Caltech from 1961-64, giving a total of about 120 lectures, of which 115 made it into The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Six Easy Pieces consists of a selection of 6 of the most accessible (least technical) of those lectures, copied verbatim from The Feynman Lectures on Physics. If you enjoyed the lectures in Six Easy Pieces, you might also enjoy the book Six Not so Easy Pieces, which consists of another 6 lectures (on the “lite” side) copied from The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

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