Inspired by Sean’s post a few days ago about the release of Feynman’s Lectures on the Character of Physical Law, I felt compelled to share my first time encountering the Feynman Lectures. I don’t recall learning of Richard Feynman in high school, and that is probably not uncommon, as the names Einstein and Hawking dominate at that age. My first exposure was in my second semester in college, when I took my first college physics class, “Light”, which covered basic optics and special relativity. The instructor was an adjunct from Caltech and would print us relevant chapters from Feynman’s Lectures. Fast forward to the following winter, after taking an introductory E/M course and firmly committing myself to a major in physics, when I sat down to read Six Not So Easy Pieces, which are the six chapters covering vectors, symmetry in physical laws, relativity, and curved spacetime—the more engaging topics from Feynman’s first volume of lectures.
A typical setting for digesting thought-provoking material is not the front seat of a Pontiac in the midnight to early morning hours at below freezing temperatures. It was the last week of December in 2003, and the country was on Orange Alert, which had prompted a massive deployment of security guards at spots thought to be at high-risk for a terrorist attack all throughout the US. I had signed up for a graveyard shift guarding one of the city’s main water towers to make some quick cash. Aside from turning my engine on for a five-minute perimeter-check every hour, I was to stay parked in a dirt lot overlooking the tower for my entire eight-hour shift, making sure I radio in every 20 minutes to let them know I am still awake. My friends called this a most unbearable job description. I thought it was better than a minimum duty work-study job at a library.
Clutching a flashlight in order to read Feynman’s words in the blackness around me, it slipped my mind that I was still cold with three layers of clothing on top of thermal underwear. Captivated by his coherent account of the field I hoped to dedicate my life to, I took in his sense of wonder and admiration for our ability to really understand. I would periodically glance around in bemusement at the phenomena around me, such as the subtle green glow emanating from the LED of my walkie talkie, which was neatly spread about on the frozen precipitation of my windshield. I was looking out into the night sky pondering General Relativity, confident that with Feynman guiding me through the language of nature, I could grasp its deepest secrets. It was an enlightening experience, a crossroad between boyhood wonder and sophisticated thinking, one that I look back on when I am in need of comfort for pursuing (as a first choice) a career with dim prospects for employment.
Every field has its heros. The nice thing about making Feynman one is that he is not nearly as mythical in the popular press as Einstein, yet he was certainly a cut above the rest. I agree with Julianne’s take on Feynman, though I had no qualms about worshiping him as an undergrad. Feynman worship in graduate school should be minimized, as that is setting yourself up for failure (or for revitalizing Wal Street). However, his lectures should continue to be utilized, as they are brilliant.