Great Lakes Geek Book Review

Feynman's Tips on Physics
Richard P. Feynman, Michael A. Gottlieb and Ralph Leighton

Even if you are/were not a Physics Major you probably know the name Richard Feynman, if only from watching the Big Bang on TV where he has been mentioned several times.

Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning (1965) theoretical physicist and in a 1999 poll of 130 leading physicists worldwide by the journal Physics World he was ranked as one of the ten greatest physicists of all time.

His career had many highlights from his participation in the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb to his work on the Rogers Commission, the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Feynman has been credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing and introducing the concept of nanotechnology.

One of his most long-lasting contributions was the three-volume publication of his undergraduate lectures, The Feynman Lectures on Physics from when he was a professor at the California Institute of Technology.

To have someone of his stature teach an intro class to freshman was unheard of. Granted it was CalTech and the freshman were the cream of the crop from high schools all over the country but it was still remarkable.

Feynman's Tips on Physics: Reflections, Advise, Insights, Practice, A Problem-Solving Supplement to the Feynman Lectures on Physics is, as the title says, A Problem-Solving Supplement to the Feynman Lectures on Physics. It begins with some background on Feynman and the CalTech Physics program and explained how someone of his stature created and taught these lectures. There is commentary and reflections from Feynman's colleagues that give insight into the man and the process.

The book itself is 3 lectures that Feynman called Prerequisites or Review lectures. He wanted the students to be at least this level before attempting the rest of the class lectures. He warned the students that while they were all number 1 or 2 at their high schools, that half of them would be, by definition, below average in their freshman class at CalTech.

If you studied Physics, you will recall that the first year or more is spent on Mechanics - inclined planes, forces and other Newtonian things. Then you might move on to Electricity and Magnetism, AC Circuits, Materials and so on. Only later would you get into quantum mechanics and more modern physics.

So what happened was that some of the things you learned suddenly had a caveat associated with them. For example, you learned that F=ma. Force = mass x acceleration. This was drummed into your head.

Then at more advanced levels of study you learned that this is true only at low velocities. The general, always true formula would be F=dp/dt which is the change in momentum with respect to time.

Similarly, everyone knows (yet not many really understand) the famous E=mc squared. But again this is only true for low velocities and changes in the quantum world.

So Feynman decided to teach physics the complete way from the start. He would discuss F=ma but immediately showed why it was not always true. This gave a great head start to the students.

His Preview lectures also had some cool tricks on integration and other mathematical concepts that were needed for the physics. Those first 3 lectures could easily be an entire course or two in both physics and mathematics.

The last (4th) lecture in the book is "only for your own entertainment and interest and if you don't understand something because it's too complicated you can just forget about it; it's absolutely unimportant." It deals with Dynamical Effects and their application and is fascinating but advanced.

For a scientist, this book is a great addition to the original lectures and gives insight into how a mind like Feynman's approached physics. For non-scientists the book gives insights into Feynman and his colleagues that are interesting outside of the actual science.

Great Lakes Geek Rating: 5 out of 5 pocket protectors.

Reviewed by Entreprenerd Dan Hanson, the Great Lakes Geek (12/13)

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