The Feynman Lectures, Fifty Years On
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Fifty years ago, Richard Feynman’s Lectures on Physics (1963–1965) first appeared in print.1 At the time, Feynman himself doubted their success for their intended audience of Caltech freshman; others since have noted their problems as textbooks or purely pedagogical offerings.2 Yet they have never gone out of print, their iconic red volumes pored over by generations of students and physicists of all ages. This seems a good moment to think about what the Feynman Lectures really accomplished and what we can continue to learn from them.
First, they were not textbooks, in the ordinary sense, but something far rarer: a synoptic, personal survey of the main topics of classical and modern physics. As such, there are very few comparable books, perhaps the first being Isaac Newton’s Principia (Principles of Natural Philosophy, 1687), the single book that, more than any other, arguably brought physics into existence in the way we now know it: a structure of overarching physical laws applied to...
KeywordsUniversal Gravitation Academic Philosophy Real Philosophy Philosophical Talk Absolute Centrality
- 1.Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands, The Feynman Lectures on Physics (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1963–1965), three volumes.Google Scholar
- 2.See Robert Crease, “Feynman’s Failings,” http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/print/2014/mar/27/critical-point-feynmans-failings, accessed April 21, 2014.
- 3.Thomas Young, Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts (Bristol: Thoemmes, 2002), four volumes. For Young’s life, see Andrew Robinson, The Last Man Who Knew Everything (New York: Pi Press, 2006); for the interconnections of Young’s work, see Peter Pesic, Music and the Making of Modern Science (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014), 161–179.Google Scholar
- 4.Arnold Sommerfeld, Lectures on Theoretical Physics (New York: Academic, 1964), six volumes (which originally appeared in German 1943–1947); Wolfgang Pauli, Lectures on Physics (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2000–2010), six volumes; Georg Joos, Theoretical Physics (New York: Dover, 1987), first appeared in 1934. Though somewhat more specialized, among personal surveys one should also consider Lord Kelvin’s Baltimore Lectures on Molecular Dynamics and the Wave Theory of Light(London: C. J. Clay and Sons, 1904), delivered in 1884.Google Scholar