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Throwback Thursday: Six Not-So-Easy Pieces

A look back through our archives for classic books still worth reading.

Richard Phillips Feynman was an American theoretical physicist and one of the most celebrated science communicators of the late 20th Century. Here is a look back at his book Six Not So Easy Pieces: Einstein's Relativity, Symmetry and Space-Time, which we reviewed in 1998. 

Feynman, Richard P., Six Not-So-Easy Pieces: Einstein's Relativity, Symmetry, and Space-Time. NY: Addison-Wesley, 1997.

Rating: Highly Recommended
Level: College, General Audiences

Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, like its predecessor, Six Easy Pieces, is a collection of six lectures culled from Feynman's well-known Lectures on Physics. While the earlier collection concentrated on what might be considered the stuff of a first-year physics course (with a chapter on quantum mechanics thrown in for spice), this second collection examines the more glamorous side of physics: relativity and space-time. Any distillation of Feynman's three-volume Lectures on Physics is bound to be a difficult task if one is to present a cogent view of the material. The concepts covered in that work are often interwoven throughout the chapters of Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, since Feynman wanted to show the connectivity among the different fields of physics. In such a short book, the challenge is not in explaining all the details, but in making the volume readable. And Feynman does this quite effectively. Because the book covers such vast territory, it would be hard to pin it down to a single physics course, but it would make an excellent supplement to a course on modern physics. Chapter four deals with relativistic energy and momentum, and the section on physics and philosophers not only is entertaining, but also offers an explanation as to why Newton could not have discovered the theory of special relativity. The chapters on space-time and curved space are probably outside the scope of a typical modern physics course, dealing as they do with general relativity, but the discussion on clocks in gravitational fields has valuable insights that second-year physics students would find useful. At the very minimum, a first-semester calculus course is useful to appreciate much of Six Not-So-Easy Pieces--particularly, chapters one and six. An understanding of derivatives is assumed throughout the book, and a background in vector analysis wouldn't hurt either. As with the original Lectures, the deeper one's background in physics, the more enjoyable the book will be. It is interesting that Feynman himself, in his introduction to the Lectures (which were written to cover an introductory physics curriculum at Cal Tech), did not consider them to be all that successful. In fact, most students find the real value of these lectures upon rereading them as upper-level graduate students. Overall, Brian Hatfield and David Pines, who advised in the selection of the pieces, did a remarkable job in selecting chapters from the features that gave the best overview of these difficult subject areas, and, as a result, the volume proves to be a most interesting read.—J. Lawrence DeCarlo, senior scientist, Northrup Grumman Corporation, Bethpage, NY

Originally Posted April 24, 2014.

Check out our Throwback Thursday Archives for more great classic reviews.