“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:
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.”
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.