Miskatonic University Press

The Feynman Lectures


I was delighted to see that The Feynman Lectures on Physics (volume one only right now) are online and freely available. These lectures are masterpieces.

Everyone should read the first, Atoms in Motion. Better yet, if you can, find the audio recording—all of these lectures were recorded when Feynman gave them—because nothing in print can capture the excitement and joy that comes across in Feynman’s voice when he’s talking about science. The first time I listened, I was grabbed from the first sentences:

This two-year course in physics is presented from the point of view that you, the reader, are going to be a physicist. This is not necessarily the case of course, but that is what every professor in every subject assumes! If you are going to be a physicist, you will have a lot to study: two hundred years of the most rapidly developing field of knowledge that there is. So much knowledge, in fact, that you might think that you cannot learn all of it in four years, and truly you cannot; you will have to go to graduate school too!

“I’m going to teach you this from the point of view that you’re going to do this for a living” is a good way to approach any kind of teaching (or, as we sometimes call it in the library world, “instruction”).

The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences, the third lecture, is equally readable by anyone, regardless of scientific background. Here’s the introduction:

Physics is the most fundamental and all-inclusive of the sciences, and has had a profound effect on all scientific development. In fact, physics is the present-day equivalent of what used to be called natural philosophy, from which most of our modern sciences arose. Students of many fields find themselves studying physics because of the basic role it plays in all phenomena. In this chapter we shall try to explain what the fundamental problems in the other sciences are, but of course it is impossible in so small a space really to deal with the complex, subtle, beautiful matters in these other fields. Lack of space also prevents our discussing the relation of physics to engineering, industry, society, and war, or even the most remarkable relationship between mathematics and physics. (Mathematics is not a science from our point of view, in the sense that it is not a natural science. The test of its validity is not experiment.) We must, incidentally, make it clear from the beginning that if a thing is not a science, it is not necessarily bad. For example, love is not a science. So, if something is said not to be a science, it does not mean that there is something wrong with it; it just means that it is not a science.

And here’s the final paragraph

A poet once said, “The whole universe is in a glass of wine.” We will probably never know in what sense he meant that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts—physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on—remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!

But as I said, if you can listen to the lectures, do it. Hearing Feynman himself is unforgettable.