Review of “Six Easy Pieces” by Richard P. Feynman

This old book (published in 1963) crossed my path so I read it. It contains six essays (actually lectures) from a class the author taught in 1961-1962 as an experiment in changing how physics is taught to undergraduates. Prefaces written in 1989 and 1994 describe it as a beautiful journey led by a great thinker (Feynman won a Nobel prize for his contributions to Quantum Electrodynamics, or QED). I think it’s more useful to read Feynman’s original preface, written in 1964. He thought the experiment was a failure as an alternative way of introducing undergraduates to the world of physics. Taking into account that this was written almost 60 years ago, I didn’t expect any brilliant insight into state-of-the-art problems.

I was curious because I was one of those introductory physics students he was supposedly teaching to in this lecture series, sitting in a lecture hall with 200 other students from every scientific and engineering discipline. Of course I suffered through this material 20 years later. It’s possible that some of the methods introduced in these lectures made their way into the University Physics courses I took because our professor used a lot of props to demonstrate different processes, very much like Feynman discusses and includes as figures. I can only imagine how it was taught before — probably like Calculus, another mind-numbing, abstract subject.

Feynman writes like a scientist, clear but a little wordy. Some of the examples he uses to introduce scientific topics are very simple but concrete, and he is clear about how far analogues can go. He uses them a lot and, from his comments in the preface, I assume he left it to the teaching assistants in the recitation classes (graduate students earning a little money to help undergrads with their homework), to actually teach the textbook material. I had a chemistry professor like that…

I guess the title is a reference to the easiest lectures in the course. This is certainly an eclectic choice for the book because a couple bordered on simpleminded (as opposed to simplified) whereas at the other extreme was a mind-numbing summary of the results (in 1961) from particle physics. I’m glad I didn’t take a pop quiz on the elementary particles from his “Basic Physics” lecture!

This material is dated and there is no sign of brilliant teaching anywhere to be found. Much better presentations have been created in the last 60 years, which is no surprise. This was an experiment, to try and interest first-year undergraduates in physics, and change what was (and still is) basically a weed-out course, into a recruitment drive. From the comments in the prefaces, it failed, but it probably influenced how physics was taught to me. If so, that was a significant accomplishment on its own.

I can’t recommend it, only because there are probably better summaries available now.

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