January 12, 2017

O Feynman, My Feynman, our stress-free physics lecture is come


On a day like today—or like so many days lately—you may feel like the universe is conspiring to tear you apart: radiation, flung from distant stars burrowing deep into your body, cutting the feeble connections in the cells of your heart; the strong nuclear force, losing its once-mighty atom-binding power, becoming weak to the gravity of our decaying social infrastructure; et cetera.

Or maybe none of the words I said above mean anything to you, even in jest.

In the immortal words of Douglas Adams, “Don’t panic!”

This week, the California Institute of Technology (CalTech) released the entirety of the Richard Feynman Lectures on Physics for free online. The widely sold and distributed print series, still published by Basic Books, has been the quintessential introduction to physics since 1963.

The endurance of good writing is hard even for literary masters, and it’s almost impossible to believe that a fifty-plus-year-old collection of science lectures is still relevant. But Feynman was the Neil DeGrasse Tyson of his day. He had a magnetism—eh hem, wink, eh hem—that helped inspire the scientifically challenged. And moreover, he made the incredibly complex universe into bite-size, fulfilling morsels of information.

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere.” I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more ? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern—of which I am a part—perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

I promise you that his lectures are as beautiful and comprehensible as the excerpt above. There are a million different individual lectures to whet your scientific appetite. I’m particularly fond of his explanations (and chalkboard drawings) explaining vectors. And his explanations of electromagnetism have helped remind me that I’m ever aflutter on this massive material world.

But if you need a little more of a push, take a look at Feynman talking about the beauty of rubber bands:



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.