Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Project Tuva, Feynman Lectures online!

On nearly every physicists bookshelf you will find three particular books. These books may be in hard cover, or they may be in soft cover. Sometimes they are published with an additional book in order to sell the set to a new generation of physicists. This set of books are collectively known as the red books, the physics bible, or The Books.

They are The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

It is not all that uncommon to hear students quote from the Feynman Lectures in biblical fashon, quoting book and verse:

"Oh, you want to know how I did that least action problem? Check out Feynman, Book 2, 19-5."

Students use the red books to study for qualifiers, or for their GRE's (and perhaps that is a mistake).
Other physicists make a once a decade pilgrimage to spend a significant portion of their free time reviewing the red books cover to cover.

Why this devotion? Because the Feynman Lectures on Physics is perhaps one of the greatest collection of books on general physics that exists!

The classes the lectures were based on were by all accounts a nightmare for most of the regularly admitted students. The courses were an experiment, and a work in progress. However, the classroom where the lectures were given was always full, as in standing room only. Most of those in the class were grad students or other professors auditing the lectures. You see, the lectures are best appreciated after one has already made it through the gauntlet of an undergraduate physics curricula. The books are not good for learning physics for the first time, but are wonderful to come back to and font of wonderful insight and nuggets of wisdom.

Ahh the internet! What a wonderful resource! The generation before widespread use of the web were lucky indeed if they ever had a chance to view a Feynman lecture. It was a special treat when someone would bring a reel to reel or a VHS of a Feynman lecture. I heard tales from my teachers of the beer parties where someone would produce a beat up and well played VHS or Beta of a Feynman Lecture.

Now days, it is rather easy to "bittorrent" a copy of almost all of Feynman's works, be it written or in Audio or Video.
The ease of getting these gems on the net in no way detracts from their power. Feynman had a powerful way of presenting ideas, and in presenting physics. Perhaps only Carl Sagan rivaled Feynman in clarity and insight. But Feynman was first, and as much as I like Sagan, in my opinion was the better at "explaining things."

Bill Gates recently announced his Project Tuva. He rhapsodizes on his goal of bringing science and physics to the masses by making Feynman's Messenger Lectures freely available to the masses.

These lectures have long been available through sharing sites, or torrents, but it is nice to be able to view a legit copy, with captions!

I highly recommend everyone to watch these lectures. They explain the place of science and physics in the world. Feynman goes into detail on what science cannot explain, and what it excels at explaining. And how scientists think about problems.
They are a template for critical thinking. They are scientific literacy embodied.


Some Google Fu will tell you why the website is named Project Tuva. For a more interesting explanation, read Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman.


  1. Thanks very much for the many nice things you have written about The Feynman Lectures on Physics, which I have the honor to edit. I would like to point out, however, that some of the things you have written are, in fact, widely held misconceptions, in particular:

    "The classes the lectures were based on were by all accounts a nightmare for most of the regularly admitted students..."


    "Most of those in the class were grad students or other professors auditing the lectures."


    "The books are not good for learning physics for the first time, ..."

    Wrong (as you should know, since you have written to me that you "taught [yourself] quite a bit of physics from the Feynman lectures")!

    Since your blog only allows comments up to 4096 characters, you can find my arguments and evidence against these misconceptions here:


    Best regards,

    Michael A. Gottlieb
    Editor, The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Definitive Edition
    Coauthor (with Feynman and Leighton), Feynman's Tips on Physics, a problem-solving supplement to The Feynman Lectures on Physics
    Physics Department
    The California Institute of Technology

  2. Thanks for your comments Mike!


  3. What happened to the old blog entry?
    Here is my post from that, though it makes less sense.

    FPF said...

    I don't know Mike, remember the email you sent me on the Yukawa potential for inverse square law tests? You were pretty blunt!
    But yeah, I would have deleted an email taunting me to post something to my blog!

    I guess I am not so hot on the Feynman lectures. I found their style a little too free-wheeling for me.

    You know Carl P. right? He was a undergrad at MIT and got his PhD at Caltech. He sat in on many of the lectures, and he said that the books are better and he heard no end of whining about the lectures from the undergrads. And Lisa L. came in from off campus to hear the lectures since she could not enroll at the time (being 1963 and all).

    Anyhow, keep up the blog Mike... I see more people are reading it. 8)

  4. Sounds like the whole snowball/parroting effect definitely came into play there. I've heard that same belief myself. But I've seen personally, classes that successfully push students to think are often the most painful at the time. As to Feynman's own early characterizations of the course, it's often hard for teachers to gauge the effect of a course, particularly so for one taught in a novel way.

  5. Thank you, Prof Gotlieb, for so many interesting 'inside stories' about FLP. The mention of Jagdish Mehra's book also made me nostalgic ..about the days when I used to read all these biographies and suchlike books voraciously (many of them by Mehra). And like Brent, I was also very surprised to hear that FLP was so popular in Soviet Union; I would think they would prefer Landau-Lifshitz or something of that sort.

    Anyway, about the books themselves; I think Volume 3 (quantum mechanics) is fundamentally different from the other 2 volumes, in that its not so much of a departure from 'conventional text book' than the other 2 are. To be honest, I would be much more inclined to recommend something like 'Sakurai' (or David Bohm, if you want a detailed motivation of the philosophy of Quantum mechanics) to a beginner (grad or undergrad). Of course, if you already have some familiarity with QM and want deeper insight, Feynman is peerless.
    As for whether or not the books can be used for learning physics for the first time, I would say that different people learn physics differently. I didnt use those as 'first time text books', but I know of brilliant students who have. I would generally agree, though, that they are harder than they look, and the proper understanding of the concepts would probably require a good teacher. Thats one paradoxical thing I often noticed about physics books ; the better the book is, more it requires a good teacher (or a friend who you can consult with). So that, I guess, could be the bottomline ; FLP is great if you are using them properly with a proper mindset; but if you are trying to use them as substitutes for conventional textbooks with the sole aim of securing a certain percentage in your exam, both you and the books might turn out to be great failure.

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