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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8 Responses to The Feynman Lectures as textbook

  1. I support Bruce Sherwood’s opinion. More detailed comments can be found at .

    A free-to-read online edition of The Feynman Lectures on Physics can be found at

    Michael A. Gottlieb
    Editor, The Feynman Lectures on Physics New Millennium Edition

  2. BruceSherwood says:

    Thank you so much for your comment and for the link to your extended comments with Feynman’s own later, carefully considered reflections on the success of FLP. FLP was one of the most important influences on Ruth Chabay and me in writing the Matter & Interactions textbook. One of our main objectives was to create an intro textbook that takes the perspective of contemporary physics, especially the 20th-century emphases on a small number of kinds of matter, a small number of kinds of interactions, and a small number of truly fundamental principles. You might enjoy my blog article on “Feynman and transients”.

    • Thanks also for your comments; I’m very happy to see physics teachers sticking up for FLP as a textbook, especially when they are authors of physics textbooks! I like the approach taken in Matter & Interactions, and I think Feynman would have too, though I note it’s a rather expensive book, like FLP, so many students whom it could benefit will not be able to read it. I would therefore like to suggest that you consider putting it online. (I might add that putting FLP online increased book sales.)

      I enjoyed reading “Feynman and transients.” You are very fortunate to have had the opportunity to teach intro. physics at Caltech when FLP was the textbook and Feynman was still around. I hope you will publish more Feynman/FLP stories on your blog!

      • BruceSherwood says:

        It is true that current printed physics textbooks are very expensive. However, there are ebook versions that are not. There are various ebook versions of Matter & Interactions, and the excellent Kindle version is only $64.

        • Google Analytics informs me that during the past week, for example, 18.12% of the new readers of the online edition of FLP (2,203 people) were in India, where Matter and Interactions is selling at (available only in hardback) for 7,705 rupees (~ $120) while India’s per capita annual income (as of May 2016) is 93,293 rupees (~ $1,447), so M&I would cost the average Indian over 8% of their annual income.

          A significant portion of FLP’s online readers are in countries where availability of the books/ebooks is limited, and/or where they are unaffordable to most potential readers. That is why Rudi Pfeiffer and I chose to make the _first_ available electronic edition of FLP free to read online. Subsequently we produced PDF, ePub and Kindle editions, but those, like the printed editions, are unavailable and/or unaffordable to many people.

  3. BruceSherwood says:

    I do understand the issue, but making our textbook free is simply not an option at present.

    • Okay. But just for the record: making FLP free-to-read online was also not an option for me and Rudi when we came up with that idea. Though we own the FLP manuscript, Caltech holds the intellectual property rights, and the exclusive publication rights are licensed to Basic Books. So we had to persuade Caltech and Basic Books that putting FLP online for free was a good idea. The pedagogical advantages were obvious to all concerned; however, Caltech and Basic Books earn considerable income from FLP royalties, and they feared loss of income. Nevertheless we persisted, got Caltech on our side, and together we appeased Basic Books by (a) including on our pages a persistently visible link to a “Buy” page with links to book retailers, (b) promising the site would increase book sales, and (c) agreeing to take the site down if it hurt book sales. As mentioned previously, it boosted book sales, and continues to do so; the free-to-read edition of FLP turns out to be the best advertisement the book’s ever had.

  4. BruceSherwood says:

    Understood, but the Matter & Interactions situation is very different.

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