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.
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!