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Richard P. Feynman was Richard Chace Tolman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology. He was awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize for his work on the development of quantum field theory. He was also one of the most famous and beloved figures of the twentieth century, both in physics and as a public intellectual.
Six Not-So-Easy Pieces is the sequel to the book Six Easy Pieces. The first book is a collection of six of the easier lectures from Feynman's freshman and sophomore physics classes at CalTech. Six Not-So-Easy Pieces are some of the more difficult lectures from those classes. In contrast to the first book, these lessons are much more mathematical. Freshman calculus is definitely a prerequisite to reading this book. Courses in vector calculus and differential equations will help the reader to more completely understand the works, but they are not absolutely necessary. However, without much mathematical knowledge, one can just take Feynman at his word for all the equations, reading mainly the conceptual explanations, but one will invariably miss out on some of the points. For anyone reading the book, Feynman's teaching style is something that can be enjoyed. He explains the concepts in a comprehensive and not-too-difficult manner and seems to have a full understanding of what the student in the lecture hall is thinking. The six topics (chapters) covered in this book are: Vectors, Symmetry in Physical Laws, The Special Theory of Relativity, Relativistic Energy and Motion, Space-Time, and Curved Space. This book is in no way a survey of physics. It is more of a sampling of Feynman's teaching. However, the common thread that runs through the six pieces is that they all relate to understanding relativity. For the layman who has a mathematical background and wants to understand the concept of relativity, this book is an excellent help. I would suggest reading Six Easy Pieces before reading this book, but it is not necessary. If you enjoyed reading the first book, I would highly recommend this one and vice versa.
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These lectures where designed to give the student the reasoning behind relativity. Unlike some books, this book does not just explain the results or phenomena of relativity. Feynman actually explains the problems with Newton's laws and actually derives and gives the reasoning for Einstein's theories about relativity. These lectures need only some calculus and basic physics knowledge to appreciate. However, as with most bonfide scientific literature, the more "mathematically and scientifically mature" the reader the better. Feynman uses pieces of calculus (very basic stuff), algebra (symmetry, vector notation, cross products, and dot products), geometry (non-Euclidian), and basic physics knowledge (conservation laws, Newton's laws, Maxwell's equations etc). You don't need all of this to listen and understand the lectures, but obviously the more the better. Feynman also does a good job of explaining some the mathematics involved as well. The lectures pretty much follow the book so you can read along while you listen. These are actual lectures that Feynman gave at Caltech to undergraduates so they are very rigorous. In short, the lectures were clear, very understandable, and offer something to everyone. You don't need anything more than a solid background in calculus and introductory physics to get something out of these lectures.
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If you've got a fair background in beginning Calculus and elementary physics, you may find this book very worthwhile. I wouldn't know. Don't be fooled, however, by reviewers who claim that Feynman explains things in such a way that even without those basic tools, the book isn't incomprehensible. I've HAD basic calculus, albeit a LONG time ago, and I'm a tad rusty. And I have even less grounding in physics. But I'm far from mathematically illiterate, or incapable. And it isn't true that I got nothing out of my reading of this book; the sixth chapter did, in fact, answer the question that I'd hoped to have answered when I bought it. But by and large, the book was close to impenetrable. Now, clearly, this may well be due to my lack of preparation in the prerequisites for understanding it. But it definitely is NOT the first step in the process of understanding physics, as one reviewer actually called it and others implied. Read "Six Easy Pieces" first, and brush up on first-year Calculus. THEN consider tackling this book.
Though the title implies it, this book is not really a sequal to the Six Easy Pieces. They can be read seperately. It treats some of the concepts centered around Special and General Relativity that revolutionized physics near the turn of the century. It would be impossible to find another book that can dive so deeply into topics such as symmetry and space-time, while bypassing formalism and exposing the fundemental ideas and signficance in every-day terms. The delivery is in lecture form, and while that makes it more authentic and real, the fact that this is a book and the reader is not really in a lecture, makes it a little awkward. One often gets the feeling that one had to be there to get the full benefit. There is little attempt at explaining the historical context and other niceties and focus is solely on the concepts themselves. One needs to have at least college level math background to follow the derivations. Feynman has done a phenomenal job in reducing such complex concepts into digestable pieces of conversation. There is no abstraction, everything is quantified. I especially enjoyed the chapter Curved Space, as I had never seen it treated so intimately. The self consistency of all these topics and how they are interrelated is elegantly presented.
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