Built on Facts

“The” Feynman Lectures

Roughly a week or so ago the ScienceBlogs front page was discussing the new online videos of the Feynman lectures. Somehow they found one of my old posts on the subject.

What I haven’t really seen pointed out that the new online video isn’t actually “the” Feynman Lectures. “The” lectures were given as an actual class for Caltech physics undergrads, and the point was to teach them physics. There’s not a lot of point reiterating the detail in my old post, but the main thrust is that the lectures are not far removed from what you’d hear if you wandered into your local university intro physics class. Well, except much more interesting and competent. [Per comments, this is certainly not to say that your local professors are not very interesting and competent. They almost certainly are. Just not as much so as Feynman! -Matt] It’s perfectly possible to read, enjoy, and appreciate them without much math background, but they’re not meant as a casual pop physics tome.

The lectures now online aren’t those lectures. This is a different set of lectures he gave to a general audience at Cornell. I was first exposed to them in their book form, the brilliant The Character of Physical Law. They technically qualify as pop physics given their focus on physics for a general audience without any hefty math content, but they’re still the best exposition of what physics actually is that I’ve ever read. It’s certainly one of the very few books in this genre that actually manage to do do justice to the topic without insulting the intelligence or being incomprehensible (or these days, flogging the author’s pet untestable theory).

If you want to try before you buy, the now-online video of the Messenger Lectures is pretty much just the live-action version of the Character of Physical Law. Either way you really shouldn’t miss them. Certainly not when they’re free! I cannot possibly recommend them enough.

No, seriously, this is a weekend and you should have some free time. Use it to watch the lectures. It’s what physics is All About, and if you have any inclination at all to like physics this is something you’ll like. Go!

Well, that’s a week. See you in the next one!


  1. #1 Grad
    July 25, 2009

    Feynman is well known to have been a fantastic teacher. This fact does not make all of the people teaching intro physics at your local university boring let alone incompetent. And there is no reason to call them so. (This is true, even if you compare them to Feynman. Your statement is insulting at every level.)

    This should be obvious to you, being that _you_ teach intro physics (to at least some degree).

  2. #2 Matt Springer
    July 25, 2009

    I apologize, that’s not at all what I meant to imply. Many professors are both extremely interesting and highly competent. In fact I’d say most of them are; I’ve had very few who I didn’t consider very good in their own ways.

    It’s simply that Feynman was just much more of those qualities. Think of Bill Gates being richer than the members of the New York Yacht Club – that doesn’t take away from the fact that most of the members are pretty rich.

  3. #3 tmaxPA
    July 25, 2009

    I’d love to take you up on your offer, but there is one reason not to accept this ‘free’ offer. Apparently it’s only valid if you install new software from Microsoft. I know I might sound like a kook, but I don’t install Microsoft software unless I really have to.

  4. #4 Jeff Ollie
    July 26, 2009

    And I can’t install Silverlight, even if I wanted to (and I really, really don’t want to). I run Linux and Microsoft does not make a Silverlight plugin for Linux. If Microsoft/Bill Gates were serious about making these videos available as a way to educate the public, rather than just flack proprietary Microsoft software, they would make the videos available in other formats…

  5. #5 Michael A. Gottlieb
    July 26, 2009

    Feynman’s 1964 Messenger Lectures were delivered shortly after Feynman gave the two-year course of undergraduate lectures that were used as the basis for (the book) “The Feynman Lectures on Physics.” The Messenger Lectures are based on some of the lectures from this undergraduate course. Feynman selected topics of interest that could be discussed cogently in whole or in part without using a lot of mathematics. So what you write, that the Messenger Lectures, “are not far removed from what you’d hear if you wandered into your local university intro physics class,” is quite true (if you happened to wander into Feynman’s 1961-63 undergraduate class at Caltech :-). However, I would also point out that “The Feynman Lectures on Physics” has three authors, the other two being Robert Leighton (inventor of microwave astronomy, and father of Ralph Leighton, author of “Tuva or Bust”), and Matthew Sands (who’s idea it was to invite Feynman to lecture on introductory physics in the first place, shortly before he left Caltech to help build SLAC). As coauthors Leighton and Sands made significant (original) contributions to “The Feynman Lectures on Physics,” which would not exist at all if it were not for their efforts. [For more detailed information about the history of The Feynman Lectures on Physics, see Matthew Sands’ memoir published in Physics Today, and reprinted in “Feynman’s Tips on Physics, a problem-solving supplement to the Feynman Lectures on Physics.”]

  6. #6 CCPhysicist
    July 26, 2009

    I’m not sure I want to read all of the fine print to find out what M$ will do with the software they install on my computer in an attempt to monopolize video on the internets, but it remains unclear if the Lectures were effective at TEACHING physics. IMHO, Volume 3 is effective pedagogy for quantum mechanics. Volume 1, not so much for classical mechanics. Volume 2 is in between, but also much more conventional in its approach.

    Feynman was certainly a charismatic lecturer, but “The” lectures ended up being directed to graduate students and faculty rather than the very different audience (albeit still extremely select) of Cal Tech freshmen that actually paid to take the class.

    One thing I would like to know is how much “The” lectures are due to Leighton. Where are the hundred or so students who actually took that class? I’d love to hear a comment from one of them!

  7. #7 Chris F.
    July 26, 2009

    Sheesh. The anti-MS crap is irritating. These are worth watching even if you’re defiantly anti-Microsoft. Silverlight is not the spawn of satan. However, if you remain steadfast, you might try Moonlight. It’s the Mono Project’s open source implementation. I have never used Moonlight, but the Mono Project in general is top notch.


  8. #8 Bob
    July 27, 2009


    You should read the Matthew Sands memoir that Michael Gottlieb referenced in the comment above yours for some perspective on the contributions of Leighton and others, the success of the lectures, and the audience as they progressed.

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