Book Review on Six Easy Pieces; by Richard P. Feynman

By: Dustin J. Buchenroth

Richard Feynman presents the book Six Easy Pieces to an audience with elementary knowledge of physics and its laws. He illustrates concepts for the average individual by relating the concept to every day events in life. This book explains physics in six sections which include: atoms in motion; basic physics; the relation of physics to other sciences; conservation of energy; the theory of gravitation; and quantum behavior.

In the first section Feynman describes the basic atomic theory. He then proceeds to show pictorially what happens when water boils, water evaporates, and when air bubbles get trapped in air. Finally he discusses the known complexity of molecules especially those of organic matter.

Next we have the section entitled, basic physics. One of the main illustrations in this section is a picture looking at a beach with clouds in the background and the sun setting, and there is a person jogging. Feynman tries to discuss all of the physical things going on here. He relates physics as if it were a game of chess being played by the gods: If we donít know how to play, but we watch long enough we may learn some of the rules, however, we may never know why a certain move is made. If we look at a bishop on a red square and say this bishop will always be on a red square, and then sometime later in time we find that it is on a white square, we say, "how can that happen?" Well what actually happened was that bishop was captured and then a pawn was queened on a white square and turned into a bishop. This is somewhat how physics behaves because we may have a law that works very well for a long time and then we find that it doesnít and we have to analyze that situation and find out "if it was a pawn that was queened or not."

Also, in the basic physics section, Feynman discusses what physics was like before 1920. He goes on to give a small introduction to quantum physics and nuclei and particles. He discusses briefly the chart that is being produced with all of the elementary particles that we know of at the present time. This chart is being put together in the same sort of way as the periodic table was but together by Mendeleyev.

In the third section, the relation of physics to other sciences, it is just that. Physics is related to every type of science as we know it Ė everything from psychology to chemistry. This was a very interesting section to me because it made me realize that physics is connected to virtually everything.

Next is the topic of the conservation of energy. In this section Dr. Feynman shows very intuitively the law, and why it works. He uses the analogy of a kid with his 28 building blocks and that these building blocks are indestructible. Hence, the kid must always have 28 building blocks at any given time. If we lock him in a room with his blocks, then at the end of each day we could come in and count his blocks and we would get 28. Well, what if we came in one day and he had 27? What happened was the kid threw one of his blocks out the window. So, we give the block back and locked the window. The next day we come in and he has 30 blocks. Now, what happened was that his friend, who came over and visited, left two of his blocks behind. So, we give them back to his friend. Another day we come in and he is down to 25, but this time we noticed that the dirty bath water is at a slightly higher level than the day before (we canít see the blocks in the water we just deduce that there must be some in there, namely 3 of them). Thus we measure the water level when he has all 28 blocks and then again when he is missing some, and we see that 1 block in the water raises it so many centimeters and so forth. The point is that energy can take on different forms but as long as we know the equations of these different forms then they must always add up to a constant, namely 28 in our case.

The fifth section is on the theory of gravitation. Here, Feynman presents, first, the gravity force equation. Next he discusses Keplerís laws and illustrates orbit extremely well by means of thinking about a gun shooting a bullet. He also explains (and shows) that horizontal motion is entirely independent of vertical motion. Finally, Einsteinís theory of gravity is introduced and briefly discusses why light is bent when it is close to big objects in the universe (i.e. the sun).

The final section is about quantum behavior. This section is wild. It discusses how things (i.e. particles) act and move on a microscopic level. Now, this subject can be relatively hard to understand because we do not have any experience with microscopic things. We see the macroscopic world and everything makes sense, but things do not act the same on the microscopic level. Feynman does and interesting experiment with bullets, waves, and then finally, electrons. This does a nice job of showing how these particles behave. The Heisenberg Uncertainty principle is related to this electron experiment and is discussed as to how it relates to everything in the universe.

All together, this book was really great. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys physics. I developed a very good understanding of basic physics concepts and have drawn questions of curiosity for more complicated concepts. Richard P. Feynman teaches this book on a relatively lower level to which most people can understand.