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Six Easy Pieces : Popular Penguins - Richard P. Feynman

Six Easy Pieces : Popular Penguins


Published: 1st September 2008
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Richard Feynman's Six Easy Pieces is the perfect layman's introduction to the mindboggling universe of physics. In Feynman's safe hands, the reader is introduced to the very basics of atoms, energy, force, gravity and quantum behaviour. If the greatest physicist since the Second World War can't explain it to you, no one can.

About The Author

Richard P Feynman was one of this century's most brilliant theo­retical physicists and original thinkers. Born in Far Rockaway, New York, in 1918 he studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he graduated with a BS in 1939. He went on to Princeton and received his Ph.D. in 1942 During the war years he worked at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. He became Professor of Theoretical Physics at Cornell University, where he worked with Hans Bethe. He all but rebuilt the theory of quantum electrodynamics and high-energy physics and it was for this work that he shared the Nobel Prize in 1965. Feynman was a visiting professor at the California Institute of Technology in 1950, where he later accepted a permanent faculty appointment, and became Richard Chace Tolman Professor of Theo­retical Physics in 1959. He had an extraordinary ability to communicate his science to audiences at all levels, and was a well­-known and popular lecturer. Richard Feynman died in 1988 after a long illness. Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, called him `the most original mind of his generation', while in its obiturary The New York Times described him as `arguably the most brilliant, iconoclastic and influential of the postwar generation of theoretical physicists'.

A number of collections and adaptations of his lectures have been published, including The Feynman Lectures on Physics, QED (Penguin, 1990) The Character of Physical Law (Penguin, 1992) Six Easy Pieces (Penguin 1998 The Meaning of It All (Penguin 1999) Six Not-So-Easy Pieces (Penguin, 1999), The Feynman Lectures on Gravitation (Penguin, 1999) and The Feynman Lectures on Computation (Penguin, 1999). His memoirs, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman were published in 1985.


There is a popular misconception that science is an impersonal, dispassionate, and thoroughly objective enterprise. Whereas most other human activities are dominated by fashions, fads, and per­sonalities, science is supposed to be constrained by agreed rules of procedure and rigorous tests. It is the results that count, not the people who produce them.

This is, of course, manifest nonsense. Science is a people-driven activity like all human endeavour, and just as subject to fashion and whim. In this case fashion is set not so much by choice of subject matter, but by the way scientists think about the world. Each age adopts its particular approach to scientific problems, usually fol­lowing the trail blazed by certain dominant figures who both set the agenda and define the best methods to tackle it. Occasionally scientists attain sufficient stature that they become noticed by the general public, and when endowed with outstanding flair a scientist may become an icon for the entire scientific community. In earlier centuries Isaac Newton was an icon. Newton personified the gentle­man scientist – well-connected, devoutly religious, unhurried, and methodical in his work. His style of doing science set the standard for two hundred years. In the first half of the twentieth century Albert Einstein replaced Newton as the popular scientist icon. Eccentric, dishevelled, Germanic, absent-minded, utterly absorbed in his work, and an archetypal abstract thinker, Einstein changed the way that physics is done by questioning the very concepts that define the subject.

Richard Feynman has become an icon for late twentieth-century physics – the first American to achieve this status. Born in New York in 1918 and educated on the East Coast, he was too late to participate in the Golden Age of physics, which, in the first three decades of this century, transformed our world view with the twin revolutions of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. These sweeping developments laid the foundations of the edifice we now call the New Physics. Feynman started with those foundations and helped build the ground floor of the New Physics. His contri­butions touched almost every corner of the subject and have had a deep and abiding influence over the way that physicists think about the physical universe.

Feynman was a theoretical physicist par excellence. Newton had been both experimentalist and theorist in equal measure. Einstein was quite simply contemptuous of experiment, preferring to put his faith in pure thought. Feynman was driven to develop a deep theoretical understanding of nature, but he always remained close to the real and often grubby world of experimental results. Nobody who watched the elderly Feynman elucidate the cause of the Chal­lenger space shuttle disaster by dipping an elastic band in ice water could doubt that here was both a showman and a very practical thinker.

Initially, Feynman made a name for himself from his work on the theory of subatomic particles, specifically the topic known as quan­tum electrodynamics or QED. In fact, the quantum theory began with this topic. In 1900, the German physicist Max Planck pro­posed that light and other electromagnetic radiation, which had hitherto been regarded as waves, paradoxically behaved like tiny packets of energy, or 'quanta,' when interacting with matter. These particular quanta became known as photons. By the early 1930s the architects of the new quantum mechanics had worked out a mathe­matical scheme to describe the emission and absorption of photons by electrically charged particles such as electrons. Although this early formulation of QED enjoyed some limited success, the theory was clearly flawed. In many cases calculations gave inconsistent and even infinite answers to well-posed physical questions. It was to the problem of constructing a consistent theory of QED that the young Feynman turned his attention in the late 1940s.

To place QED on a sound basis it was necessary to make the theory consistent not only with the principles of quantum me­chanics but with those of the special theory of relativity too. These two theories come with their own distinctive mathematical machin­ery, complicated systems of equations that can indeed be combined and reconciled to yield a satisfactory description of QED. Doing this was a tough undertaking, requiring a high degree of mathemati­cal skill, and was the approach followed by Feynman's contempo­raries. Feynman himself, however, took a radically different route – so radical, in fact, that he was more or less able to write down the answers straight away without using any mathematics!

To aid this extraordinary feat of intuition, Feynman invented a simple system of eponymous diagrams. Feynman diagrams are a symbolic but powerfully heuristic way of picturing what is going on when electrons, photons, and other particles interact with each other. These days Feynman diagrams are a routine aid to calcula­tion, but in the early 1950s they marked a startling departure from the traditional way of doing theoretical physics.

The particular problem of constructing a consistent theory of quantum electrodynamics, although it was a milestone in the devel­opment of physics, was just the start. It was to define a distinctive Feynman style, a style destined to produce a string of important results from a broad range of topics in physical science. The Feyn­man style can best be described as a mixture of reverence and disrespect for received wisdom.

Physics is an exact science, and the existing body of knowledge, while incomplete, can't simply be shrugged aside. Feynman ac­quired a formidable grasp of the accepted principles of physics at a very young age, and he chose to work almost entirely on conven­tional problems. He was not the sort of genius to beaver away in isolation in a backwater of the discipline and to stumble across the profoundly new. His special talent was to approach essentially mainstream topics in an idiosyncratic way. This meant eschewing existing formalisms and developing his own highly intuitive ap­proach. Whereas most theoretical physicists rely on careful mathe­matical calculation to provide a guide and a crutch to take them into unfamiliar territory, Feynman's attitude was almost cavalier. You get the impression that he could read nature like a book and simply report on what he found, without the tedium of complex analysis.

Indeed, in pursuing his interests in this manner Feynman dis­played a healthy contempt for rigorous formalisms. It is hard to convey the depth of genius that is necessary to work like this. Theoretical physics is one of the toughest intellectual exercises, combining abstract concepts that defy visualization with extreme mathematical complexity. Only by adopting the highest standards of mental discipline can most physicists make progress. Yet Feyn­man appeared to ride roughshod over this strict code of practice and pluck new results like ready-made fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

The Feynman style owed a great deal to the personality of the man. In his professional and private life he seemed to treat the world as a hugely entertaining game. The physical universe pre­sented him with a fascinating series of puzzles and challenges, and so did his social environment: A lifelong prankster, he treated authority and the academic establishment with the same sort of disrespect he showed for stuffy mathematical formalism. Never one to suffer fools gladly, he broke the rules whenever he found them arbitrary or absurd. His autographical writings contain amusing stories of Feynman outwitting the atom-bomb security-services during the war, Feynman cracking safes, Feynman disarming women with outrageously bold behaviour. He treated his Nobel Prize, awarded for his work on QED, in a similar take-it-or-leave-it manner.

Alongside this distaste for formality, Feynman had a fascination with the quirky and obscure. Many will remember his obsession with the long-lost country of Tuva in Central Asia, captured so delightfully in a documentary made near to the time of his death. His other passions included playing the bongo drums, paint­ing, frequenting strip clubs, and deciphering Mayan texts.

Feynman himself did much to cultivate his distinctive persona. Although reluctant to put pen to paper, he was voluble in conversa­tion, and loved to tell stories about his ideas and escapades. These anecdotes, accumulated over the years, helped add to his mystique and made him a proverbial legend in his own lifetime. His engaging manner endeared him greatly to students, especially the younger ones, many of whom idolized him. When Feynman died of cancer in 1988 the students at Caltech, where he had worked for most of his career, unfurled a banner with the simple message: 'We love you Dick.'

It was Feynman's happy-go-lucky approach to life in general and physics in particular that made him such a superb communicator. He had little time for formal lecturing or even for supervising Ph.D. students. Nevertheless he could give brilliant lectures when it suited him, deploying all the sparkling wit, penetrating insight, and irrev­erence that he brought to bear on his research work.

In the early 1960s Feynman was persuaded to teach an introductory physics course to Caltech freshmen and sophomores. He did so with characteristic panache and his inimitable blend of informality, zest, and off-beat humour. Fortunately, these priceless lectures were saved for posterity in book form. Though far removed in style and presentation from more conventional teaching texts, the Feynman Lectures on Physics were a huge success, and they excited and inspired a generation of students across the world. Three decades on, these volumes have lost nothing of their sparkle and lucidity. Six Easy Pieces is culled directly from Lectures on Physics. It is intended to give general readers a substantive taste of Feynman the Educator by drawing on the early, non-technical chapters from that landmark work. The result is a delightful volume – it serves as both a primer on physics for non-scientists and as a primer on Feynman himself.

What is most impressive about Feynman's carefully crafted expo­sition is the way that he can develop far-reaching physical notions from the most slender investment in concepts, and a minimum in the way of mathematics and technical jargon. He has the knack of finding just the right analogy or everyday illustration to bring out the essence of a deep principle, without obscuring it in incidental or irrelevant details.

The selection of topics contained in this volume is not intended as a comprehensive survey of modern physics, but as a tantalizing taste of the Feynman approach. We soon discover how he can illuminate even mundane topics like force and motion with new insights. Key concepts are illustrated by examples drawn from daily life or antiq­uity. Physics is continually linked to other sciences while leaving the reader in no doubt about which is the fundamental discipline.

Right at the beginning of SIX EASY PIECES we learn how all physics is rooted in the notion of law – the existence of an ordered universe that can be understood by the application of rational reasoning. However, the laws of physics are not transparent to us in our direct observations of nature. They are frustratingly hidden, subtly encoded in the phenomena we study. The arcane procedures of the physicist-a mixture of carefully designed experimentation and mathematical theorizing-are needed to unveil the underlying law-like reality.

Possibly the best-known law of physics is Newton's inverse square law of gravitation, discussed here in Chapter Five. The topic is introduced in the context of the solar system and Kepler's laws of planetary motion. But gravitation is universal, applying across the cosmos, enabling Feynman to spice his account with examples from astronomy and cosmology. Commenting on a picture of a globular cluster somehow held together by unseen forces, he waxes lyrical: 'If one cannot see gravitation acting here, he has no soul.'

Other laws are known that refer to the various non-gravitational forces of nature that describe how particles of matter interact with each other. There is but a handful of these forces, and Feynman himself holds the considerable distinction of being one of the few scientists in history to discover a new law of physics, pertaining to the way that a weak nuclear force affects the behaviour of certain subatomic particles.

High-energy particle physics was the jewel in the crown of post­-war science, at once awesome and glamorous, with its huge acceler­ator machines and seemingly unending list of newly discovered subatomic particles. Feynman's research was directed mostly to­ward making sense of the results of this enterprise. A great unifying theme among particle physicists has been the role of symmetry and conservation laws in bringing order to the subatomic zoo.

As it happens, many of the symmetries known to particle physi­cists were familiar already in classical physics. Chief among these are the symmetries that arise from the homogeneity of space and time. Take time: apart from cosmology, where the big bang marked the beginning of time, there is nothing in physics to distinguish one moment of time from the next. Physicists say that the world is 'invariant under time translations,' meaning that whether you take midnight or mid-day to be the zero of time in your measurements, it makes no difference to the description of physical phenomena. Physical processes do not depend on an absolute zero of time. It turns out that this symmetry under time translation directly implies one of the most basic, and also most useful, laws of physics: the law of conservation of energy. This law says that you can move energy around and change its form but you can't create or destroy it. Feynman makes this law crystal clear with his amusing story of Dennis the Menace who is always mischievously hiding his toy building blocks from his mother (Chapter Four).

The most challenging lecture in this volume is the last, which is 311 exposition on quantum physics. It is no exaggeration to say that quantum mechanics had dominated twentieth-century physics and is far and away the most successful scientific theory in existence. It is indispensable for understanding subatomic particles, atoms and nuclei, molecules and chemical bonding, the structure of solids, superconductors and superfluids, the electrical and thermal con­ductivity of metals and semiconductors, the structure of stars, and much else. It has practical applications ranging from the laser to the microchip. All this from a theory that at first sight-and second sight-looks absolutely crazy! Niels Bohr, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, once remarked that anybody who is not shocked by the theory hasn't understood it.

The problem is that quantum ideas strike at the very heart of what we might call common-sense reality. In particular, the idea that physical objects such as dectrons or atoms enjoy an independent existence, with a complete set of physical properties at all times, is called into question. For example, an dectron cannot have a posi­tion in space and a well-defined speed at the same moment. If you look for where an dectron is located, you will find it at a place, and if you measure its speed you will obtain a definite answer, but you cannot make both observations at once. Nor is it meaningful to attribute definite yet unknown values for the position and speed to an dectron in the absence of a complete set of observations.

This indeterminism in the very nature of atomic particles is encapsulated by Heisenberg's celebrated uncertainty principle. This puts strict limits on the precision with which properties such as position and speed can be simultaneously known. A sharp value for position smears the range of possible values of speed and vice versa. Quantum fuzziness shows up in the way dectrons, photons, and other particles move. Certain experiments can reveal them taking definite paths through space, after the fashion of bullets following trajectories toward a target. But other experimental arrangements reveal that these entities can also behave like waves, showing char­acteristic patterns of diffraction and interference.

Feynman's masterly analysis of the famous 'two-slit' experiment, which teases out the 'shocking' wave-particle duality in its starkest form, has become a classic in the history of scientific exposition. With a few very simple ideas, Feynman manages to take the reader to the very heart of the quantum mystery, and leaves us dazzled by the paradoxical nature of reality that it exposes.  .

Although quantum mechanics had made the textbooks by the early 1930s, it is typical of Feynman that, as a young man, he preferred to refashion the theory for himself in an entirely new guise. The Feynman method has the virtue that it provides us with a vivid picture of nature's quantum trickery at work. The idea is that the path of a particle through space is not generally well-defined in quantum mechanics. We can imagine a freely moving electron, say, not merely travelling in a straight line between A and B as common sense would suggest, but taking a variety of wiggly routes. Feynman invites us to imagine that somehow the electron explores all possi­ble routes, and in the absence of an observation about which path is taken we must suppose that all these alternative paths somehow contribute to the reality. So when an electron arrives at a point in space-say a target screen-many different histories must be inte­grated together to create this one event.

Feynman's so-called path-integral, or sum-over-histories ap­proach to quantum mechanics, set this remarkable concept out as a mathematical procedure. It remained more or less a curiosity for many years, but as physicists pushed quantum mechanics to its limits-applying it to gravitation and even cosmology-so the Feynman approach turned out to offer the best calculational tool for describing a quantum universe. History may well judge that, among his many outstanding contributions to physics, the path­integral formulation of quantum mechanics is the most significant.

Many of the ideas discussed in this volume are deeply philosophi­cal. Yet Feynman had an abiding suspicion of philosophers. I once had occasion to tackle him about the nature of mathematics and the laws of physics, and whether abstract mathematical laws could be considered to enjoy an independent Platonic existence. He gave a spirited and skillful description of why this indeed appears so but soon backed off when I pressed him to take a specific philosophical position. He was similarly wary when I attempted to draw him out on the subject of reductionism. With hindsight, I believe that Feyn­man was not, after all, contemptuous of philosophical problems. But, just as he was able to do fine mathematical physics without systematic mathematics, so he produced some fine philosophical insights without systematic philosophy. It was formalism he' dis­liked, not content.

It is unlikely that the world will see another Richard Feynman. He was very much a man of his time. The Feynman style worked well for a subject that was in the process of consolidating a revolu­tion and embarking on the far-reaching exploration of its conse­quences. Post-war physics was secure in its foundations; mature in its theoretical structures, yet wide open for kibitzing exploitation. Feynman entered a wonderland of abstract concepts and imprinted his personal brand of thinking upon many of them. This book provides a unique glimpse into the mind of a remarkable human being.

September 1994


ISBN: 9780141037547
ISBN-10: 0141037547
Series: Popular Penguins
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 176
Published: 1st September 2008
Dimensions (cm): 18.1 x 11.1
Weight (kg): 18.1