SEL Books: QC21.2 .F49 1989
I just finished Richard Feynman’s Six Easy Pieces, and to my surprise and consternation, our library doesn’t carry it. But don’t despair. The six lectures presented in the book I wish to recommend are contained in the SEL book listed above.
You may remember Feynman from his role in the investigation of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion. He was the one who succinctly illustrated the problem by dropping the O-ring in the glass of ice water to demonstrate how brittle they become in the cold.
In these Six Easy Pieces, Feynman presents some of the most basic ideas of physics in a way that is both engaging and easy to understand. As someone who began my academic career as an engineering major, most of what I read was review, with the exception of the lecture on quantum theory. But it brought back that sense of excitement I had when I first began studying the physical world, and how awe-inspiring it was for me. With a bit of imagination, studying physics opens up new worlds of ideas.
I remember how amazed I felt when I understood that most of what we understand as the material world is really vacuum, that solidity is an illusion, and that the subatomic world is nothing like what we understand as “reality.” These ideas challenged many of my cherished notions of reality, and so changed utterly my entire world-view. It takes one’s breath away.
If you get The Feynman Lectures on Physics and want to read the six lectures I’m recommending, here is a list of the six easy pieces: Atoms in Motion, Basic Physics, The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences, Conservation of Energy, The Theory of Gravitation, and Quantum Behavior. The book also contains many other lectures, including six that were collected in Six Not-So-Easy Pieces: Einstein’s Relativity, Symmetry, and Space-Time (SEL Books: QC 793.3 .S9 F49 1997), which I have not yet read.
For those interested in this fascinating, brilliant, and well-loved physicist, but don’t want to read about physics itself, I recommend you pick up two delightful autobiographical works Feynman wrote with Ralph Leighton: “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” : Adventures of a Curious Character (LCD: QC 16 .F49 A37 1986) and What Do YOU Care What Other People Think? : Further Adventures of a Curious Character (LCD: QC 16 .F49 A3 1988).
(Originally published in Connections, June 2006)