October 8, 2008
The discovery of Feynman lectures of physics.
October 8, 2008.
I had enrolled into college after twelve years in school. It was a three years honors degree in Physics and I was just into the final year. I wanted to explore what Physics beyond classical Physics, [Modern Physics] is all about. Our teachers were giving lists of books that were supposedly textbooks for that level and as was customary the books from publications abroad stood out from the big list of the books with Indian authors, some of the latter seemingly good for a career in Physics.
Among the books that I still remember were a bunch of books used worldwide as textbooks. So I ended up in the library to check these books out. Quantum Mechanics being a subject in the final year I wanted the Librarian to show me a list of books on this subject. I found an attractive name, “Feynman Lectures on Physics, Richard Feynman”. The name immediately struck with me and I wanted to see copies of the book. The librarian showed me the copies and they were all unusual in appearance. The size was much bigger than all other text books I had seen. The book was hard-bound and had a beautiful smell to it possibly coming from the kind of paper that was used, it was possibly expensive than other books materials. The books might have had a longer shelf-life giving it a different smell. When I opened up the typeset was really attractive and the design of type was artistic with a lot of generous blank space. I had never seen a text book like that. The librarian advised me not to read these books as these are supposed to be way beyond what the student of my level could possibly apprehend. I didn’t follow his advise and asked him to issue these to me. I took the 3 copies to my home and the librarian said I didn’t have to return these for a long time as many others wouldn’t have a demand for such a difficult text.
I had fallen in love for the attractiveness of these books and I immediately started reading the final volume on Quantum Mechanics. I realized that the earlier two volumes were on courses that I had already passed in the preceding 2 years. And since I had heard about “Quantum Mechanics is a new theory of Physics” I focussed my attention. The style of oratory suited me very much. It was nothing like any book I had read, almost like someone was talking in front of me, lively and in an engaging fashion. Believe it or not I had already formed a picture of the lecturer, a smart, dynamic person. All other books were so different, starting right away with a definition and equations.
I read the first 3 chapters over and over again as the concepts seemed rather unusual to comprehend. But I didn’t want to give up. I realized why students were advised against such “difficult” books, they were supposed to pass the courses not assimilate the concepts of Physics at such a “young” age of their lives. They could read these if they take up a career in Physics, if they turn out to be a teacher for the rest of their life and thats when their ability to understand Physics might have developed to a requisite level. What a Phony! These lectures were intended for students right of that age. The most difficult subjects were explained in the most lucid style. Of-course in our system of education we are not supposed to think Physics at that age.
I thought to myself, contrary to the perception given by the librarian, the teachers and the fellow students I find these books rather engaging and the subject matter rather understandable. I then went on to understand the concepts of Mechanics from a “different” perspective. I had already passed the mechanics courses a year ago and there was no need to read again. I was “wasting” my final years time for stuff that I possibly did not need. I finished a lot many chapters. They were easy as the concepts of mechanics were old, even I knew all the mathematics before college and some of the concepts were known much before. I had studied by myself a very advanced text, by Herbert Goldstein in the preceding year.
I also tried to finish few chapters from electrodynamics which was the 2nd volume in these lectures. I had to finish my course from many other textbooks and I had “wasted” the first two years in solving a lot of mathematics and physics problems and had to pass additional courses in the final year which I had omitted in the first two. So in the final year I made up for bad scores of the first two years. Given the advance nature of the courses in the final year and additional burden from first two years courses I passed the whole course in first division. So I had scored much better in the courses of the final year. I barely survived with a first division. I realized that by solving the advanced problems I had really developed a very good aptitude for Physics. The rigorous self-training gave me a tremendous advantage when I appeared for entrance into Universities and I did really well in these exams.
This had happened later in my academic degrees when I had to make up for the lag in the preceding years by speeding through in the final years and ended up with a first division although strikingly close. My risk taking was always popular. But I had optimized it for a understanding of Physics.
The Feynman lectures hadn’t been the source of such success, but despite of the burden of courses and a lot of time I had spent for solving problems I had developed a habit for thinking Physics. My approach had succeeded and I was cruising through Physics. I planned in my head to continue with the understanding of Physics from Feynman lectures but never again in my research career ten years after the start of such a beautiful text I had the time to read the books. The plan still stays with me. I am disheartened at the attitude people at the research level have towards understanding of the subject matter. It probably pays better the other way. Its not only detrimental towards education of the younger generation but it also impedes our understanding and we end up doing satisfactory but not outstanding research.