To cure a recent bout of cerebral malaise, I decided to learn about quantum physics, so I turned to Richard P. Feynman. Feynman was a legendary physics professor at the California Institute of Technology, won the Nobel Prize for his work on quantum field theory, and helped develop the atomic bomb. He is also well known for his books, mostly memoirs and collections of lectures, which have earned him a reputation I think is unique to him – an approachable physics genius.
Six Easy Pieces is billed as “essential physics explained by its most brilliant teacher,” and is marketed as physics for beginners, a notion that Feynman contradicts in his preface to the book. As he tells it, he kept seeing students come to Caltech to study physics, and drop out of the program before they got to the interesting stuff. So they reworked the curriculum.
The special problem we tried to get at with these lectures was to maintain the interest of the very enthusiastic and rather smart students coming out of the high schools and into Caltech. By the end of two years of our previous course, many would be very discouraged because there were really very few grand, new, modern ideas presented to them.
This is not really physics for beginners, then, but extremely advanced physics explained conversationally, so that students with a working knowledge of the sciences will be intrigued and inspired by the majestic complexity of the discipline, even if they can’t grasp it yet. For as Feynman also says, “even the most intelligent student was unable to completely encompass everything that was in the lectures.”
Armed with this daunting knowledge, along with the knowledge that I was a Russian lit major and took a class in high school called “liberal arts chemistry,” I pressed on. If the eponymous six lectures are not exactly easy to comprehend, they are at least easy to digest, at about 20 pages each. More than once he lost me about two-thirds of the way through, but happily you do not have to master each lecture before moving on to the next.
I did not finish the book with fluency in physics, although I did learn a lot of interesting things about tides, the temperature of gas, the hexagonal nature of ice crystals, and what quantum electrodynamics is. What I did gain was a picture of the journey physics has been on, from the days when it was called “natural philosophy” to the enormous strides of Newton and Einstein to the state of physics theory today, which Feynman calls “an expanding frontier of ignorance.” He is always quick to note when he’s reached point where established physics ends and conjecture begins.
At one point, he describes a theory involving the nucleus of an atom (its make-up is full of unknowns), but says it has yet to be proven. “It turns out that the calculations that are involved in this theory are so difficult that no one has ever been able to figure out what the consequences of the theory are, or to check it against experiment, and this has been going on now for almost twenty years!”
The book is full of these unanswered questions, or unproven theories. Feynman compares physics to a game of chess. By watching the game long enough, you can catch on to what the basic rules are, and which pieces are allowed to move in which ways. “Even if we knew every rule, however, we might not be able to understand why a particular move is made in the game, merely because it is too complicated and our minds are limited. If you play chess you must know that it is easy to learn all the rules, and yet it is often very hard to select the best move or to understand why a player moves as he does.”
It’s comforting to see physics portrayed in this way – as a set of theories under constant revision – rather than an intimidating discipline. Because Feynman is so candid about the limitations of physics, his book feels very welcoming and instructive at the same time. Like a really great teacher.