Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Why Are Feynman's Lectures Still Mesmerizing?

Here's a brief Q&A with MIT's Robert Jaffe on why videos of Feynman's lectures still are popular with a lot of people.

Q. Nearly 50 years after Richard Feynman gave these lectures, why are they still relevant today?

A. Feynman brought a level of insight, enthusiasm and trenchant wit to the exposition of the fundamental laws of physics that is unsurpassed. These lectures come from the height of his “pedagogical period,” shortly after he finished his “Feynman Lectures” books. As for why they are still relevant, I addressed that in one of my commentaries. Here is a quote from my commentary on the last lecture:
“The laws of physics that Feynman has been describing are just as fresh and powerful as they were in 1964, or indeed decades earlier, when they were first discovered. In contrast a 50-year-old lecture series in biology, chemistry, computer science or the social sciences would be of historical interest only. For better or worse, the laws of physics don't change (no matter how much we may sometimes wish they would). Now, as in Feynman's day, they form the basis of all the other sciences, and Feynman's explanations are as fresh as any lectures in a classroom today. From time to time, I've added some modern perspective, occasionally correcting one of Feynman's remarks that proved incorrect in later years.”

There are also people who I think follow the cult of "celebrity". A lot of people who have very little inkling of understanding of Stephen Hawking's work, for example, still buy his books and flock to his appearance as if he's a rock star. I would think that Feynman legend continues to grow even after his death, and that helps to cultivate more "cult" following.

In any case, if you missed it, I reported on the availability of the Feynman lectures online a while back, thanks to Bill Gates.


1 comment:

Michael A. Gottlieb said...

The seven lectures viewable at the Project Tuva website were given as part of the Messenger Lecture Series at Cornell in 1964. They were filmed by the BBC. The (3-volume 115-chapter book) "The Feynman Lectures on Physics" is based on a two-year introductory physics course that Feynman taught at Caltech in 1961-63, which was tape-recorded and photographed, but never filmed or videotaped - no films or videos of The Feynman Lectures on Physics exist.

These two sets of lectures are not directly related, but I would not say that they are completely unrelated. Most of the ideas Feynman discusses in his seven Messenger Lectures can also be found expressed in a very similar manner somewhere in The Feynman Lectures on Physics, which he delivered at Caltech only a few years prior.

Mike Gottlieb
Editor, The Feynman Lectures on Physics