The Feynman Lectures as textbook

As a young professor at Caltech I was assigned to teach intro physics (1966-1969), and I had the great good fortune to teach intro physics using the “Feynman Lectures on Physics” as the textbook. This experience had a huge impact on me. One of the effects was that I left experimental particle physics to work on university-level physics education, first in the PLATO computer-based education project at UIUC, and later at Carnegie Mellon and NCSU. Ruth Chabay used the Feynman book in an undergraduate course at the University of Chicago, and it was a major influence on us in the writing of the “Matter & Interactions” textbook.

Several times at public gatherings of physicists I have heard the claim that the Feynman course at Caltech was a failure, and I have always seized the opportunity to rebut these claims from my own experience. One of the things I’ve pointed out is that at the time he gave the original lectures there was no textbook, nor were there problems keyed to the lectures, whereas by the time I lectured in the course there was a lot of infrastructure, including the book. I also point out that in a traditional intro course students don’t understand everything, and ask the audience whether it is better to understand part of a traditional textbook or part of Feynman. In my judgment the course was a success in the late 60’s at Caltech, not a failure. When I moved to UIUC in 1969, I judged that it would have worked in an honors course there.

Matthew Sands with Robert Leighton translated Feynman’s unique spoken word into print. In his memoir “Capturing the Wisdom of Feynman”, Physics Today, April 2005, page 49, Sands provided confirmation for my own viewpoint. Feynman’s own assessment in the preface that it was a failure has helped perpetrate the notion that it didn’t work, and I was glad to learn from Sands’ memoir that this was off-the-cuff, not a carefully considered judgment. Moreover, Feynman’s view was not shared by others who were involved in teaching the course. As he says in the preface, “My own point of view — which, however does not seem to be shared by most of the people who worked with the students — is pessimistic”.

Kip Thorne has written some commentary on the history of the Lectures.

Lawrence Krauss’s excellent scientific biography “Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science” also discusses the Feynman course, and what he says is consistent with the views of Sands and me.

Bruce Sherwood

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