Built on Facts

The Bible of Physics

The Feynman Lectures are the bible of physics.

Because it’s the definitive and authoritative sacred text? Nope. Because everyone has it but not many people have actually read it. This is too bad. The lectures are a fantastic way to learn about physics.

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Richard Feynman was a brilliant physicist, one of the true titans of modern science. Unlike most great scientists, he was also tremendously charismatic, a ladies man, musician, adventurer, and a skilled popular writer. Sometimes science snobs look down on the cult of Feynman popularity, but this is just sour grapes. The man really was all that and a bag of chips.

By the 1960s he was already a legend. At the time, he made his money as a professor at Caltech. Their faculty was not happy with the quality of introductory physics instruction and asked Feynman to teach the introductory class for a year. Never one to miss an opportunity to demonstrate his brilliance, he agreed.

It was only a partial success in terms of its goal to teach the undergraduates how to do introductory physics. Physics has to be mastered from two directions: understanding the physics, and being able to do physics problems. The first was a staggering success, while the second didn’t work as well for his class. This deficiency for the students in his class has worked out very well for the rest of us. We’re already being taught by our own professors how to do physics, Feynman’s lectures are the perfect aid to having a deeper grasp on the concepts and connections themselves. I’ve had several professors who have completely mastered physics at the level of these books, but who still read them for new insights and for ideas on how to better teach physics. As I’ve also known people who bought the set and never read them, and then almost invariably they’ll end up telling me “Hey, I actually got around to reading the Feynman lectures, and they’re actually really great”. Well no kidding, they wouldn’t be selling tens of thousands of super-deluxe collectors editions if they were bad.

This also excellent from the perspective of the interested layman who wants to learn about physics but isn’t worried about actually finding the eigenmodes of coupled oscillators or whatever. Feynman’s lectures succeed in spades for that. They aren’t popularizations; they do require effort and in order to really appreciate the full effect you’ll be best served by knowing some of the basic mathematical tools of physics. But you’d enjoy them as well even if you just vaguely remember high school math.

So, what are these lectures about? They come in three volumes, each roughly corresponding to one semester of intro physics. The first is mostly classical mechanics, the second mostly electricity and magnetism, and the third a quite lucid yet technically sound introduction to quantum mechanics. (There’s a table of contents in the Wiki article) It won’t teach you how to do problems, but it will teach you what those problems are asking.

I’ve read and enjoyed the lectures for years. The version I own is the previous hardcover commemorative edition, but within the last few years a newer commemorative edition has been published that includes the “Tips on Physics” volume which improves the problem-solving aspect of the lectures.

Cheap it ain’t. The hardcover edition comes with a snazzy solid case to keep them together, and the whole four-book set runs about $120. The paperback edition is about $60, but that’s considered a bit déclassé by physics aficionados. Either way though, it’s well worth having.

Next time I’ll try to review something cheaper!

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    October 13, 2008

    Hey, don’t knock the paperback version–it’s better suited for an undergrad’s budget. I was an undergrad when I bought my copy in the late 1980s. I actually did read through them back in the day, but since I don’t currently teach I haven’t consulted them in a while.

    I just checked to see whether there was any surviving price information (there wasn’t). Interestingly, what I have is not a precisely matched set. Volumes I and II are marked as being from the sixth printing (February 1977), but Volume III is from the third printing (July 1966). They’re in excellent shape for 31 and 42 year old paperbacks.

  2. #2 Eric Johnson
    October 13, 2008

    Hear, hear! I purchased the Feynman Lectures as a sophomore physics student, and was very disappointed that I didn’t understand them immediately. After all, I had taken the first round of physics, gotten good grades, and considered myself a bit above average. It wasn’t until my senior year that I cracked them open again and realized how insightful, beautiful, and unifying they were.

    Feynman’s approach was so palpably physical and intuitive that it throws a lot of people off – even seasoned physicists. Perhaps especially seasoned physicists (remember Shelter Island). Fortunately for us, his genius extended to pedagogy; I still re-read the lectures, and I’m still amazed at how much I learn from them – not so much math and method anymore, but qualitatively and intuitively.

    Thanks for the great posts. I particularly like the way you stick to the physics – evokes fond memories of school and inspires me to go back and revisit areas that have become quite rusty through disuse.

    Eric Johnson

  3. #3 frog
    October 13, 2008

    Thanks for reminding me what I should use my amazon gift certificates on.

  4. #4 Blake Stacey
    October 13, 2008

    I was hoping the Deluxe Collector’s Edition would come with a book of problems to work, but that’s what the Internet is for, anyway.

    Incidentally, the extra material in that edition reveals that Feynman’s original, rather pessimistic preface was dictated just after he’d seen the final exam scores for the first students to take the class. I wonder what he would have said after a year or two, when the bugs had been worked out and the students had had books to use.

  5. #5 DaleP
    October 13, 2008

    Thanks for a great memory. I’m not doing physics now, but when I decided (1972) 2 years after my BA to go to physics grad school, I read the whole set to prep for the GRE. It was great, for the physics and to get to better know Feynman.

  6. #6 Zeno
    October 13, 2008

    I actually used Volumes 2 and 3 of the Feynman books while taking Physics 2 at Caltech. It was the seventies and by then they had worked out the problem-solving bit somewhat better. Still, I was happy to have had prior exposure to Halliday-Resnick, which came at physics with more of a computational problem-solving approach than a conceptual slant.

    Your post makes me want to dig those books out and browse through them again. Feynman’s enthusiasm is infectious and enjoyable (probably even more today, knowing that I’m not facing any exams).

  7. #7 Jonathan Vos Post
    October 13, 2008

    One of our football cheers at Caltech was:

    God’s on our side,
    we’ve got Feynman,
    get in there
    and crush their linemen!

    By the way, he and his family earned no royalties from the paperback edition. It had never occurred to my coauthor Richard Feynman that there might be a paperback…

  8. #8 hinschelwood
    October 14, 2008

    I remember reading the Feynmann lectures at various points in my degree. Well-written and beautifully explained. So many insights into physics – a real change from all other textbooks.

    Trouble is, they are only good if you actually know the physics already. Actually learning something from scratch is nigh-on impossible from these book. That was proved by Feynmann himself, as well as later teachers. Stick to the standard books and read Feynmann later. It’s worth it.

  9. #9 Larian leQuella
    October 14, 2008

    Everyone has it? Maybe people in the field of physics have it. I WISH everyone did have it and read it though. Maybe less of the people in the US would be such total fucktards if they knew a little actual science!

  10. #10 CCPhysicist
    October 14, 2008

    You can also see the result of the pessimistic intro if you simply compare volumes 1 and 2. Volume 2 is well organized, whereas Volume 1 is a scattershot approach that should not be emulated by any teacher.

    Most glaring omission: No discussion at all of that most basic of ideas, the free body diagram for a multi-body system. Better not design a truss bridge based on this book!

    Best part: Lovely treatment of harmonic motion using complex numbers, still sadly omitted from 1st year textbooks.

  11. #11 Ryan
    July 16, 2009

    For anyone who isn’t aware, Feynman’s New Zealand lectures are online at the Vega Science Trust (http://vega.org.uk/video/subseries/8).

    I once spent 24 hours ignoring work as I watched him talk about the mind-blowing properties of light.

  12. #12 raja ravi chandra
    September 4, 2010

    i want to buy this book plse i want to know the cost of this