Reading this book, Feynman’s voice rings with sonorous relateability - you can imagine him pacing in front of a lecture hall and expanding upon the emptiness of atoms.
There’s something oratory in the writing, yet, friendly. It’s unlike most physics reading experiences in this way, and you can see why Feynman was such a star of his time, and an eternal star ever after his passing. He could be talking about tides and gravity while sitting and having a beer with you, or in front of 100 sophomores. This is Feynman’s accessible charm - he’s telling you great secrets, publicly.
Feynman’s compelling physics lessons always arrive with a dash of scale and analogy - an atom is the size of a room, the nucleus is the size of a speck of dust in the room, and the electrons are all around the room or the walls of the room itself.
Reading Feynman after reading everything Sagan does feel like reading a prequel. Reading Feynman after Neil DeGrasse Tyson feels even more so. If born in 1960 or 1970, Feynman would have been a charismatic leader with his own TV Show, someone would have noticed and said “Wow this guy is amazing” and put him on air.
The introduction to this edition of Six Easy Pieces states that Feynman probably failed to reach students with giving these lectures, and that in his own self assessment, his teaching efforts were mostly a failure - but I don’t exactly see how he could have failed. Maybe 90 of 100 undergrads in 1989 weren’t ready, or they weren’t reachable. People say that kids these days are dense, but it’s hard to imagine someone who couldn’t be compelled by Feynman. Maybe there’s something I’m missing.
Perhaps the whole world loved him, but they just couldn’t react in the moment with Richard Feynman. They watched him careening by like a meteor, but they couldn’t get swept up in his magnitude. They couldn’t be amazed at an atom’s nucleus or the unknowability of most of physics. This is the only thing I can surmise as to why he thought he failed. I feel like I am trying to comfort an A+ student who is judging herself too hard.
Midway through the book there is this stunning footnote:
“For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”
He’s right, the truths of physics are so wild, so outrageous, that the romance of reality is dramatically beyond tales of Chronos and Zeus. Feynman in this book is an entertainer - It’s Carl Sagan slicing a pie in Technicolor, it’s Neil Degrasse Tyson walking across a galaxy for millions of viewers on Netflix. All three physics superstars are like artists in this way, in that they take in outrageously abstract concepts and bring them to earth while at the same time admitting that we barely understand them.
Abstract ideas, even unknowable abstract ideas are communicable, but it takes an absolute master to take us there. 90% of us still may not get it.
Complex ideas can be communicated in a simple way
Even the smartest can still fail at understanding
The physical truth of the world is far more romantic and outrageous than fiction