Feynman the "Great Explainer": The Feynman Lectures on Physics
The Feynman Lectures on Physics by Richard Feynman, Robert Leighton, and Matthew Sands is perhaps Feynman's most accessible technical work and is considered a classic introduction to modern physics. It includes lectures on mathematics, electromagnetism, Newtonian physics, quantum physics, and even the relation of physics to other sciences. It has three volumes, which were compiled from material presented in a two-year introductory physics course given in the early 1960s by Feynman at Caltech. Six readily accessible chapters were later compiled into a book entitled Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher, and six more in Six Not So Easy Pieces: Einstein's Relativity, Symmetry and Space-Time.
The first volume focuses on mechanics, radiation, and heat. The second volume is mainly on electromagnetism and matter. The third volume, on quantum mechanics, shows, for example, how the double-slit experiment contains the essential features of quantum mechanics.
By 1960 Richard Feynman was already a legend in his own time; at age 42 his research and discoveries in physics had resolved a number of troubling inconsistencies in several fundamental theories. In particular, it was his work in quantum electrodynamics which would lead to the awarding in 1965 of the Nobel Prize in physics. At the same time that Feynman was at the pinnacle of his fame, the faculty of the California Institute of Technology was concerned about the quality of the introductory courses being offered to the undergraduate students. It was felt that these were burdened by an old-fashioned syllabus and that the exciting discoveries of recent years, many of which had occurred at Caltech, were not being conveyed to the students.
Thus, it was decided to reconfigure the first physics course offered to students at Caltech, with the goal being to generate more excitement in the students. Who better to teach this course than the most famous lecturer of physics on campus? To the surprise of the Department, Feynman readily agreed to give the course, though only once. Aware of the fact that this would be a historic event, Caltech recorded each lecture and took photographs of each drawing made on the blackboard by Feynman.
Based on the lectures and the tape recordings, a team of physicists and graduate students put together a manuscript that would become "The Feynman Lectures on Physics." Although Feynman's most valuable technical contribution to the field of physics may have been in the field of quantum electrodynamics, the Feynman Lectures were destined to become his most widely read work.
Today the Feynman Lectures are considered by many to be the best introductory set of lectures on Physics ever written. Feynman himself however stated in his original preface that he was "pessimistic" with regard to the success with which he reached all of his students. The Feynman lectures were written "to maintain the interest of very enthusiastic and rather smart students coming out of high schools and into Caltech." Feynman was targeting the lectures to students who, "at the end of two years of our previous course, [were] very discouraged because there were really very few grand, new, modern ideas presented to them." As a result, some physics students find the lectures more valuable after they obtain a good grasp of physics by studying more traditional texts. Many professional physicists refer to the lectures at various points in their careers to refresh their minds with regard to basic principles.
As the two-year course (1961–63) was still being completed, word of it spread throughout the physics community. In a special preface to the 1989 edition, David Goodstein and Gerry Neugebauer claim that as time went on, the attendance of registered students dropped sharply but was matched by a compensating increase in the number of faculty and graduate students. Sands, in his memoir accompanying the 2005 edition, contests this claim. Goodstein and Neugebauer also state that, "it was [Feynman's] peers - scientists, physicists, and professors - who would be the main beneficiaries of his magnificent achievement, which was nothing less than to see physics through the fresh and dynamic perspective of Richard Feynman.", and that his "gift was that he was an extraordinary teacher of teachers". In the 1980s, Goodstein produced a new set of freshman physics lectures called The Mechanical Universe, which in itself is a classic Caltech lecture series which borrows some of its historically based video scenes from Carl Sagan's Cosmos television series.
Addison-Wesley published a collection of problems to accompany The Feynman Lectures on Physics. The problem sets were first used in the 1962-1963 academic year and organized by Robert Leighton. Some of the problems are sophisticated enough to require understanding of topics as advanced as Kolmogorov's zero-one law, for example.
Addison-Wesley also released in CD format all the audiotapes of the lectures, over 103 hours with Richard Feynman, after remastering the sound and clearing the recordings. For the CD release, the order of the lectures was rearranged from that of the original texts.
In March 1964 Feynman appeared before the freshman physics class as a guest lecturer, but the notes for this lecture were lost for a number of years. They were finally located, restored, and made available as Feynman's Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun.
In 2005 Michael A. Gottlieb and Ralph Leighton co-authored Feynman's Tips on Physics, which includes four of Feynman's freshman lectures not included in the main text (three on problem solving, one on inertial guidance), a memoir by Matt Sands about the origins of the Feynman Lectures on Physics, and exercises (with answers) that were assigned to students by Robert Leighton and Rochus Vogt in recitation sections of the Feynman Lectures course at Caltech. Also released in 2005, was a "Definitive Edition" of the lectures which includes corrections to the original text.
Volume 1. Mainly mechanics, radiation, and heat
Preface: "When new ideas came in, I would try either to deduce them if they were deducible or to explain that it was a new idea ... and which was not supposed to be provable."
Chapter 1. Atoms in motion
Volume 2. Mainly electromagnetism and matter
Chapter 1. Electromagnetism
Volume 3. Quantum mechanics
Chapter 1. Quantum behavior
"Six Easy Pieces grew out of the need to bring to as wide an audience as possible a substantial yet nontechnical physics primer based on the science of Richard Feynman. . . . General readers are fortunate that Feynman chose to present certain key topics in largely qualitative terms without formal mathematics. . . ."
Six Easy Pieces (1994)
1. Atoms in motion
Six Not-So-Easy Pieces (1998)
* Feynman once commented, about these three volumes: "[This set of books] has views which are very close to my own."
* The Feynman Lectures on Physics (with Leighton and Sands). 3 volumes 1964, 1966. Library of Congress Catalog Card No. 63-20717
o ISBN 0-201-02115-3 (1970 paperback three-volume set)
o ISBN 0-201-50064-7 (1989 commemorative hardcover three-volume set)
o ISBN 0-8053-9045-6 (2006 the definitive edition (2nd printing); hardcover)
* Feynman's Tips On Physics: A Problem-Solving Supplement to the Feynman Lectures on Physics (hardcover) ISBN 0-8053-9063-4
* Six Easy Pieces (hardcover book with original Feynman audio on CDs) ISBN 0-201-40896-1
* Six Easy Pieces (paperback book) ISBN 0-201-40825-2
* Six Not-So-Easy Pieces (paperback book with original Feynman audio on CDs) ISBN 0-201-32841-0
* Six Not-So-Easy Pieces (paperback book) ISBN 0-201-32842-9
* Exercises for the Feynman Lectures (paperback book) ISBN 2-356-48789-1 from the Caltech Bookstore