Monday, 6 April 2009

Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman

Lowdown: An appealing introduction to physics.
I first heard of Richard Feynman while reading Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World. In there, Sagan provides a list of reading recommendations: he recommends literally anything written by Asimov and Richard Dawkins’ books on biology to name two. However, Sagan’s warmest recommendation seems reserved for Richard Feynman's ability to write purely about science in a way that would appeal to people and encourage them to have a go and learn.
Feynman is actually a Noble award winner in physics, and as a writer his most famous legacy are the transcriptions of physics lectures he gave during the sixties at an American university. Although it didn’t seem so at the time, these lectures are now acknowledged as exemplary in the sense of them being able to capture the hearts of the reader as opposed to scaring them away. Indeed, scaring people away from science is one of science’s worst enemies; if my personal history with physics studies is anything to judge by, I can definitely identify with people’s wishes to steer clear of science. Between high school and university studies, I did have the dubious pleasure of encountering some of the worst teachers ever. Yet even Feynman’s transcripts are hard for most people to digest, especially those lacking in mathematical foundations.
Into this picture stepped this wise publisher who decided to take a mere six pieces of Feynman’s transcripts, the introduction pieces to subjects such as particles, electricity, gravity and quantum physics, and pack these up in a book marketed at laymen. At an asking price of $7 and 140 pages, I deemed Six Easy Pieces to be a good tool for me to assess Feynman’s physics tutorials with.
And now to the trick question: Does Feynman deliver the magic one would expect after such a glowing recommendation by Sagan? My answer to that question is a mixed bag. I guess it always had to be that kind of an answer.
First and foremost, Feynman’s explanations of basic physical phenomenon made me simply go “wow”. Things that I haven’t understood before despite years of studying physics at quite a high level were made stupidly clear by Feynman, including phenomena such as why the vaporization of liquids from a hot coffee mug leaves the mug cooler, why the moon circles the earth with such precision and why the earth doesn’t just fall towards the moon given that the moon is pulling the earth (but the earth does not orbit the moon). The explanations are so intuitive and so appealing I could only wish I’ve had teachers like Feynman instead of Mrs Sari Galezer (I hope she reads this and weeps, because I still remember the trauma of being called to answer questions near at the blackboard before the entire class).
Perhaps the best indication of how good and appealing Feynman is compared to his dreary “competition” is Feynman’s introduction to quantum physics. He does it by describing three experiments, one using old style Newton physics, one using the physics of waves, and one using quantum particle physics. After reading these three you will know why quantum physics has gained the reputation it had for being unintuitive and hard, but you will also know a bit of something worthwhile about this world of ours.
The mixed bag of my review is to do with the obvious fact that even when explained by a teacher as capable as Feynman, physics is still hard and often unintuitive. The book might be called Six Easy Pieces but often enough the reading is not easy at all, and occasionally it does require some knowledge in mathematics. If these are the easy pieces, I doubt I will give Feynman’s unabridged transcripts a go any time soon. It is my impression that Feyman is still not as good as Dawkins in explaining the seemingly unexplainable, but then again to date I have never seen someone do a better job than Feynman when dealing with physics.
Between Feyman’s passion for science as an umbrella for all things verifiable though repeatable experiments (thus discarding pseudosciences such as the so called intelligent design) and his appealing explanations, I warmly recommend you give Six Easy Pieces a go. It could just illuminate you with basic understandings about this world in which we live.
Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars.


Uri said...

1. What do you have against Galezer? I thought she was ok (even though she gave me a "very weak minus" evaluation in the parents-teachers conference in 10th grade).

2. And don't forget that according to the book this class wasn't quite a success and lost a large part of its students.

3. I didn't feel like I was reading a popular science book. It felt more like a textbook (kinda like reading Sears-Zimansky, only with far less formulas and no drills). But that's actually a good thing, and I did enjoy it.

Moshe Reuveni said...

1. Galezer sucked. She was as dry as a hair dryer set on max and was way too high on the intimidation factor. If we look at statistics, I was excellent in physics with Rachel Alon, went down with Galezer, and went up again (but not as high as before) with Berger.
I can see why you would think Galezer was OK; you were always the type that managed to understand even the worst teacher (I think this attribute is called "smart"). I, on the other hand, am very sensitive to teacher qualities, and in most cases I had to rely on people like you or Yuval to explain stuff to me, stuff the teacher failed to explain well.

2. You're right, and I can see why; Feynman is a typical academic, detached from what it takes to pass a test. For a reader coming in to learn without any commitments, though, he's excellent.

3. I agree, but I think Feynman beats the crap out of Sears-Zimansky. He did something they were never even remotely able to do, which is make me want to read the book. He did it by explaining how the material he teaches applies to day to day wonders, whereas they were stuck with their pulleys getting all tangled up.
For the record, at uni we had a physics book that wasn't too bad either. I was looking for it last time I visited my parents' place with the aim of taking it with me, but it turned out my mother threw it. Great.