Feynman as the Great Teacher?

While browsing for something else, I stumbled on an article which derides Feynman’s qualities as a teacher, and the Caltech Feynman Lectures themselves. It is an interesting read. Let me quote (part of) the conclusion:

“Richard Feynman constructed an “introductory” physics course at Caltech suitable primarily for perhaps imaginary extreme physics prodigies like himself or how he pictured himself as an eighteen year old. It is an open question how well the actual eighteen year old Feynman would have done in the forty-three year old Feynman’s “introductory” physics course. Like many adults had Feynman lost touch with what it had been like to be eighteen? In any case, such extreme physics prodigies made up only a small fraction of the highly qualified undergraduate students at Caltech either in the 1960’s or 1980’s. An educational system designed by extreme prodigies for extreme prodigies, often from academic families, extremely wealthy families, or other unusual backgrounds rare even among most top students as conventionally defined, is a prescription for disaster for the vast majority of students and society at large.”

The article actually reacts to a blog post from Bill Gates, who extols Feynman’s virtues as a teacher. So… Was or wasn’t he a great teacher?

It all depends on your definition of a great teacher. I respect the views in the mentioned article mentioned above—if only because the author, John F. McGowan, is not just anyone: he is a B.S. from Caltech itself, and he has a Ph.D. in physics. I don’t, so… Well… He is an authority, obviously. Frankly, I must agree I struggled with Feynman’s Lectures too, and I will probably continue to do so as I read and re-read them time after time. On the other hand, below I copy one of those typical Feynman illustrations you will not find in any other textbook. Feynman tries to give us a physical explanation of the photon-electron interaction here. Most introductory physics textbooks just don’t bother: they’ll give you the mathematical formalism and then some exercises, and that’s it. Worse, those textbooks will repeatedly tell you you can’t really ‘understand’ quantum math. Just go through the math and apply the rules. That’s the general message.

Formula 3

I find that very disappointing. I must admit that Feynman has racked my brain—but in a good way. I still feel I do not quite understand quantum physics “the way we would like to”. It is still “peculiar and mysterious”, but then that’s just how Richard Feynman feels about it too—and he’s humble enough to admit that in the very first paragraph of his very first Lecture on QM.

I have spent a lot of my free time over the past years thinking about a physical or geometric interpretation of the wavefunction—half of my life, in a way—and I think I found it. The article I recently published on it got downloaded for the 100th time today, and this blog – as wordy, nerdy and pedantic as it is – attracted 5,000 visitors last month alone. People like me: people who want to understand physics beyond the equations.

So… Well… Feynman himself admits he was mainly interested in the “one or two dozen students who — very surprisingly — understood almost everything in all of the lectures, and who were quite active in working with the material and worrying about the many points in an excited and interested way.” I think there are many people like those students. People like me: people who want to understand but can’t afford to study physics on a full-time basis.

For those, I think Feynman’s Lectures are truly inspirational. At the very least, they’ve provided me with many wonderful evenings of self-study—some productive, in the classical sense of the word (moving ahead) and… Some… Well… Much of what I read did—and still does—keep me awake at night. 🙂

One thought on “Feynman as the Great Teacher?

  1. Agreed. I think Feynman was probably one of those guys who was so fascinated with these things that he was bulging with ideas and had trouble expressing them. I feel the same way about philosophical topics, and I believe it’s a common sentiment for anyone who, in love with a topic, has studied and thought about it so long that it’s hard to trace things back to where they began. He did a good job though. His lectures on QED are still one of THEE best presentations on the topic, even though the complementary textbook is way over my head.

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