The Feynman Lectures: Do They Deserve All the Hype?

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By: Emilia Azure <3

The Feynman lectures come from a famous set of lectures given by the esteemed Richard Feynman. They’re hailed as the holy grail of teaching instruments. Every university has at least one set of copies and they’re one of the first places all physics students turn to for help.

A black and white picture of Richard Feynman in front of a blackboard

The master at work

The lectures come from the transcriptions of Feynman’s lectures in Cal Tech. They’re written in a breezy conversational style — it makes you feel as if Feynman’s right in front of you, reading the lectures to you. He has the sort of skill that makes it evident that he knows exactly what he’s saying, even if it sounds ridiculous, and that it’ll eventually result in enlightenment. He enlightened me both on something so simple as the structure of water and something so complex as the Heisenburg uncertainty principle and the structure of an atom.

Every edition of the Feynman Lectures is amazingly gorgeous. There are multiple editions of the book and each comes with its own take on the binding. The hardcover edition of the lectures are bound in a durable, beautiful red covering. The standard paperback edition has a minimalist design — a red and white colour scheme. The binding here is far more fragile but it is far less expensive. The typesetting is beautiful; the book is completely done in LaTeX, the standard for maths and natural science publishing. There are very large margins for you to take notes on the side and the text is in an easy to read sans-serif font and it is gentle of the eyes.

Now, there’s something important to mention here. The lectures are *not* a textbook and they don’t presume to be such. They excel as references books and supplements to traditional textbooks. They’ve certainly helped me understand many different parts of classical mechanics when my teacher’s lectures weren’t clear enough. Feynman himself said that his experimental lectures were a failure, though. Though Feynman’s fans find that a bit harsh, they’re definitely not suitable as main textbooks for a course. Additionally, because these books are based on Feynman’s lectures, there are no lecture sets included and though what little maths are present are beautiful, there aren’t enough formulas to aid understanding.

The lectures also require a lot of concentration on the part of the reader. The amazing conversational style helps to make physics easier to understand but Feynman often goes into tangents and mixes basic prose and graduate-level material — sometimes even in the same page! And really, no matter his oratory skills, he’s trying to cover an incredibly broad and dense field; after a while, there’s not much that can be done to make uni-level physics easy to digest. The lectures are also written with an exceptionally bright Cal Tech student’s perspective in mind. That doesn’t mean much, to be honest — tons of people are that smart or smarter — but it can be intimidating to some.

The Feynman Lectures are worth the (admittedly steep) price as long as you keep what they really are in mind. They’re not a complete panacea for all physics needs and they don’t want to advertise themselves as such. There’s a lot of hype floating around because of Feynman’s furious fans and the praises given to the lectures aren’t always deserved. They’re amazing and broad texts that can supplement any lecture course and as an introduction to physics for an enthusiast, there are worse books to choose. If you have the means to get them, I’d recommend buying the Feynman lectures; no matter what, the man was a genius and his style is like that of no-one else~

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