Tom MacWright

I read Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman on


I saw this book on San Francisco bookshelves, went through the phase of admiring Feynman, and finally decided to read his longer-form writing.

I was reading this book’s three introductions – an Introduction, a Preface, and a Special Preface, all of which heap praise ont he map - and thought what it would have been like for his colleagues, who worked so much harder for the same goals, the women he famously used, his students who got so little attention.

Of course he delivers on the expectations. He really was a rare mind, but his is a confusing parable. He emphasizes curiousity, and his determination to confirm his theories in experiment admirable. But his isn’t a story of someone who worked day and night for success, or someone who lived a thoroughly respectable personal life. Or maybe he was – maybe he’s the Pavement of physicists, earning a reputation as a sort of slacker genius due to his delivery, but in fact putting in the work behind the scenes.

Anyway, enough about the ‘man himself’. This book is based off of a series of introductory lectures for a college course, and so it covers a huge amount of ground at a high level of abstraction. It’s nearly free of mathematics. I was looking forward to the chapter about quantum electron dynamics, but unfortunately it was the shortest and least concrete.

The other chapters were useful review - what’s in an atom, how gravity works, and so on. What I liked about it most was Feynman engaging with levels of understanding, explaining how theories can be useful and consistent in many cases but still ‘wrong.’

There’s a section that briefly connects physics to other scientific disciplines, and mentions how mathematics is not a science. I had forgotten that, and it was interesting to think about - because math doesn’t use the scientific method and is abstracted from the world, it’s in a universe of its own. Which is fascinating in part because some of the efforts in the two fields are so similar in construction: folding@home runs distributed calculations to determine the mechanics of enzymes and proteins, while other projects distribute the search effort for prime numbers with a similar setup.

I recommend this book, but mostly it whetted my appetite for a more extensive introduction to physics.