My ~ Month of Reading Physcis.
Posted on July 3rd, 2017
Upon completing my month of autobiographies I was up for a challenge. I wanted to read material that I've never read before that would force me to stop and engage. I settled on physics. Last year I read The Dancing Wu Li Masters by Gary Zukav and, at the time, I remember feeling like my world had opened up. I was blown away by his insights and the realities of what's "out there". I've since leant the book to several of my friends and family who've come back with similar responses.
Earlier this spring, as the controversy around Uber was presenting itself to the media, I couldn't help but be taken with Susan Fowler's writing. When her blog was published and a friend shared it with me, I was naturally appalled. But then I was curious. Previously, I had been an avid Uber rider and didn't want to hear about their misogyny and mistreatment. As such, I wanted to learn more about Susan and her background. So, I read the rest of her blog. Turns out she is one interesting and inspiring woman who gave me both the courage and a starting point on what to read when venturing into the realm of physics. Based off of her suggestions is why I decided to read four of Feynman's books this month... but, feeling ambitious, I added a fifth by author A. Zee. He's written forwards for Feynman's books before and references his work throughout.
Alright so, jumping in:
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Richard Feynman
I am so glad I read this book first. It was by far my favorite. It was written in a conversational tone as transcripts from interviews, speeches, lectures, and printed articles with Feynman. In the beginning it discusses his work on the atomic bomb during the war. It sheds light on his rationale at the time and provides discourse about how the reader may view his participation today. This book largely discusses fundamental questions like, what is science? What should sciences' role be in modern society? How does one abstain from fooling ourselves? And finally, the book concludes with a discussion on the intersection between science and religion. In this final chapter Feynman acknowledges varies viewpoints while laying his case. He argues that as a scientist uncertainty is part of our nature and that it's better to acknowledge the degrees of uncertainty around us than to pretend otherwise. He then comments on western civilization claiming that it is built on two different heritages, the humility of the intellect and the humility of the spirit. His parting thought poses a question to the reader and beyond: "How can we draw inspiration to support these two pillars of Western civilization so that they may stand together in full vigor, mutually unafraid?"
Feynman's Tips on Physics, Gottlieb & Leighton
Pumped with enthusiasm from my last read I was ready to tackle this book... or so I thought. This book was a mere 10% theory and 90% practical application of physics. Except for, it wasn't practical for me and it assumed a base level of mathematics knowledge that I was very much lacking. This book was honestly a nightmare to read. Something that should have taken me five days instead took me two weeks. Even after finishing it, I estimated I only really understood or grasped 30% of the information... what a waste. These are some of the subjects I attemped to tackle: numerical integrations, fundamental rocket equations, derivatives (from hell), nonrelativistic approximation, motion with forces, triangulation, electrostatic proton beam deflectors.
Fearful Symmetry, A. Zee
I decided I needed a break from Feynman and thus read Fearful Symmetry. Quite frankly I stayed actively engaged through the beginning of the book where it was discussion based about beauty, simplicity, mirrors, time and space, happy thoughts, Einstein theory, etc. I think my favorite chapter was titled "Where the action is not". It makes a comparison between science and poetry that sure tickled me, then goes on to discuss different aspects of light. How/why it bends through water. Why we perceive water on the highway when it's hot outside. Etc, etc. However, then quarks came into discussion and I was lost. Up/down, top/bottom, strange/charm are all adjectives used to describe quarks (mater particles that compose protons and neutrons).... uhmmm, okay science, you weird.
QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, Feynman
Next up, I tackled light head on and learned that is behaves like particles more often than it behaves like waves, as many assume. How light fills all areas of a lens equally even though it might not be that way. I appreciated Zee's introduction here where he categorizes the reader into one of three categories: physics students, curious laypersons, and professional physicists. I was excited to fall into the second category until he elaborated that these people don't really ever "get it", they just think they do... hmmm.
Six Not-So-Easy Pieces, Feynman
This book was also a difficult read but not to the extent that I couldn't get through it. It touched on many topics that I'm "familiar" with by now.The Lorentz transformation, particle parity, symmetry, vectors, and concluded with space-time. The intervals in space-time are different, as is the entire map. The z axis comes in to play here adding another dimension. I've been more conscious of the z axis over the last year as I've studied photography; so it's cool to learn about it in another context. Feynman ackowledges that space is curved and thus so is time and everything else involved. Luckily, it doesn't make a difference in our day-to-day
Richard Feynman is a man I'd like to meet if he were alive today. I like him because of the juxtaposition of his intellect and normalcy. He is described as "half genius and half buffoon". He is known for frequenting strip clubs and chasing women. He is a Nobel Prize winner. He's created the basis of undergraduate physics students. He created the atomic bomb. He often wears shirtsleeves when a suit is expected. He's weird, and I dig it.
Through my ~month of reading physics, I've realized that even if I didn't "get it" in the way that these authors intended, I still took something from reading these this past month. My awareness is significantly increased. My ability to read difficult text has skyrocketed. Further, I thought about the subject matter but applied it to other areas of life. I think going forward my study of physics could go one of two ways. Start at an easier level where I can solidify mathematic basics before approaching more complex concepts. I think this would take the form of textbooks and "hands-on" learning as opposed to just reading. Or, I could continue to read more theory and popular physics books written without the extensive math side but still communicate conceptual thinking.