S03E07: The Guitarist Amplification

“Hiding in my bedroom blaring a Richard Feynman lecture”, Sheldon tells us is where he could be found when he was hiding from difficult situations as a child.   He may have done this often, since there are over 100  hours of recordings of Feynman’s famous lectures delivered to Caltech freshmen in 1961-3.    The lectures were transcribed and edited into a famous three volume set aptly titled “The Feynman Lectures on Physics.”  Open the book and on the first page of your journey, you will be greeted with a perhaps unexpected  image of an author of a physics textbook:


Richard Feynman: physicist, Nobel laureate, teacher, bongo drummer

Every physics major should own a copy.  I keep a set at my office and home so as not to be at a loss.

Being part of a physics faculty, when I foolishly don’t walk fast enough down the hallway I am sometimes called upon to help decide what textbook we should use in our first-year courses.  Writing a general physics textbook is heroic undertaking and I greatly admire the work of  those authors. Yet, the texts are remarkably (probably necessarily) similar in organization and content.   Even  if you look at a first-year physics textbook from 50 years ago, you will not find it much different than one we use today.  (Except most modern books add distracting colors and take about twice as many pages to get it said.  If you are a physics major, you can do yourself a big favor by finding a used copy of “University Physics” by Sears and Zemansky dating from the 1950’s.)  By contrast,  Feynman’s lectures are unique.  His take on everything is his own.   Even after all these years, his lectures are astounding in their freshness.  His lectures do more than explain the physics (which they do beautifully), but Feynman uses them to teach how to approach physics as a physicist.  He often leads the reader to seeing the essential question about a topic.  They are just inspirational.

While intended for first-year undergraduate students, The Feynman Lectures come into their own for graduate students in physics.  Many physics graduate programs have a big exam for graduate students at the end of their first year.  It is administered over several days and often even has an oral-exam component in front of a panel  of professors.  The students must pass it to stay and enter the university’s Ph.D. program.  For the students spending a summer studying for this exam, The Feynman Lectures are rarely out of arm’s reach.   (Students understandably dread this exam, but when it is all over, they  look back fondly and say it was a wonderful way to spend a summer.)   I went through the same ritual and to this day, whenever I am stuck understanding a concept while teaching a first-year class, I turn to Feynman and invariably find the answer in his lectures.

Unfortunately, a  first approach the Feynman Lectures can be a bit daunting.   A common criticism is that they were even above the heads of their target audience of Caltech physics majors.  Fortunately, physics fans  can still get a excellent sample of Richard Feynman, the lecturer, since Microsoft’s Project Tuva recently made available a copy of Feynman giving “The Messenger Lectures.”


Feynman lectures on gravity (Click image for videos.)

Much has been written of Feynman, especially by himself.   Richard Feynman was a hero of many young students interested in physics growing up.  Not because he won a Nobel Prize–many physicists have done this–but  for his stories of a life in physics.  A classic that I first encountered and devoured while in high school is his hilarious and slightly subversive memoir  Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! If you were to read just one thing about Feynman, or any scientist for that matter, I recommend that book.  If you hunt around, you will  find many more hours of audio tapes of the master himself recounting these stories in preparation for the book.

It’s a wonder Sheldon ever came out of his bedroom.

15 Responses to “S03E07: The Guitarist Amplification”

  1. CapitalistImperialistPig Says:

    This was a good episode. I think the writers got their mojo back.

    And the Feynman lectures are great, but probably not for Freshmen.

  2. Drew Scott Says:

    Hi David – “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” was one of my Feynman favorites when I was in high school. There is a great insider account of the Space Shuttle Challenger investigation. And even though I changed careers I still treasure my hard-bound copy of his Lectures.

  3. Iñigo Says:

    Hi David,

    I recently read a text by Feynman about (kids’) textbooks: “Judging Books by Their Covers”, which happens to be one of the chapters in “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”. Hilarious and subversive indeed:


  4. bellatrix Says:

    Haha, I don’t remember that summer of studying that fondly… proud that I passed, but it was a task! The lectures are wonderful, though.

    • Drew Scott Says:

      Yeah, same here. I vividly remember all of it… three months of non-stop studying, relief and pride that I passed, feeling amazed at just how much physics I could cram into my brain. I think the latter two are the only source of fondness. I could have played video games for those three months! 😉

  5. Dean Baird Says:

    The Feynman Lectures truly are of Biblical importance to physics-types. I bought mine as a struggling undergrad, so they are the big red “paperbacks.”

    As a high school physics teacher, I endure the textbook adoption process every seven years. (Though I wouldn’t describe it as an itch.)

    During my first adoption cycle, I loaded up on evaluation copies of at least 20 titles. There were so many publishers (school and college) back then. Many dogs in the fight. Many of them quite suitable.

    In subsequent cycles, the offerings narrowed as publishers coalesced. This was more apparent in the school market than the college market. In our most recent adoption, there were only four choices for high school physics, and we went into the process not liking two of them.

    What happened to college books was bloat. Serious bloat. Few weigh in at fewer than 1000 pages. And some had problem sets that numbered into triple digits! Everyone’s favorite tangent was covered in every title. The 1000 pages were printed in small type on rice-paper so that everything would fit.

    I went with a truncated version of a straight-forward “classic”: Essentials of College Physics. As long in the tooth as I am, my thought for an AP text was “present the physics and leave the tangents to me.” Trust me; I have plenty. Though it came in under 900 pages and was the slimmest volume of the choices at hand, it’s geared toward the pre-med course and fetches more than $150 per copy.

    The important thing to keep in mind about books is that they do not teach the course. The instructor teaches the course. The book is a tool, one of many.

  6. Sedat Sönmez Says:

    I’m a Physics major freshman at Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul, Turkey. And normally our textbook is Serway’s Physics textbook. But i really hate this book! I knew Feynman-sensei from high school. Then i’ve bought The Feynman Lectures on Physics hardcover set for $40! That means 60 Turkish Liras. These books’ current cost on Amazon is $63.69 🙂

    Now i’m very glad, while i’m studying with this set. The Feynman Lectures on Physics are best of best of all textbooks for physics majors. Hell yeah! Feynman rulez!

    • Ernesto Says:

      Hey! I used the Serway book when I studied physics in university, it was better than other books that I had to use previously because it delivered the context of the time.

      In fact Serway has some page dedicated to Feyman’s bio, it appears that he was a fan too…

  7. True_Q Says:

    I’m not a physicist, yet I have big (ca 0,7 x 0,5 m) poster with Feynman playing bongos in my flat. The poster really helped me while writing my master thesis. When I was exhausted, just one look was enough to pull me through. I love his “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”

  8. Portland Guy Says:

    Powells.com has a first edition set of Sears and Zemansky for $30. For its age, it’s in pretty good shape. For about half that they have second edition “unmatched” set. There is also a complete 5th edition in one volume.

  9. Michael Varney Says:

    LOL! I just wrote about FLP on my own blog!
    I also have two sets. My keep at home set which is the hard bound definitive edition, and my old beater set which are paperback and which I carry with me for use at work or school!

    Project Tuva is an interesting resource:

  10. Mr. Jody Bowie Says:

    Just watched this episode on DVR. It was excellent, as usual.

    I can totally relate to Sheldon. I wish I had been blessed enough to have something as comforting as Mr. Feynman keeping me company when the parental units were being less than nice to each other.

    I, unfortunately, don’t have a copy of his lectures, but I do enjoy the Messenger videos. “Surely you’re joking” is the first book by a scientist I ever read. Its a must read. I recommend it to students regularly.

    Guess I’m going to have to hunt up an old copy of Sears and Zemansky AND start the hunt for Feynman, as well.

  11. Anton Says:

    I have all 112 audio lectures on my iPhone and I’ve listened through each lecture multiple times. I get something new each time through. I love them.

  12. Traducción: “S03E07: The Guitarist Amplification” « The Big Blog Theory en Español Says:

    […] Artículo original por David Saltzberg […]

  13. Tradução: “S03E07: The Guitarist Amplification (A Amplificação do Guitarrista)” « The Big Blog Theory (em Português!) Says:

    […] feita a partir de texto extraído de The Big Blog Theory, de autoria de David Saltzberg, originalmente publicado em 9 de Novembro de […]

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