Thursday, July 16, 2009

Richard Feynman books and videos

If you haven't already encountered the legendary Richard Feynman through his wonderful books, they are very much worth checking out. He's not your usual Nobel laureate in physics (even assuming such a concept exists.)

He has a couple of very funny autobiographical memoirs, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynmann: Adventures of a curious character and What Do You Care What Other People Think? Further adventures of a curious character. Both books would make great beach reading, as they are full of fascinating and often funny anecdotes that strike the interest of math circle members, including his experiences on his high school math team in New York.

Actually, in all his books, even his classic and famous (but far more technical) Lectures on Physics, Feynman displays a wonderful conversational style. Because of his delightful and engaging conversational style, his books are great fun to read aloud to family members, friends, your dog, basically anyone who'll listen! One of my favorite Feynman books is The Character of Physical Law, which contains the text of seven fascinating public lectures which he delivered at Cornell.

A hat tip to Professor Moorthy for sending us links to newly available videos of the inimitable Richard Feynmann delivering those lectures. The videos are available at the following links:
Youtube version and Microsoft site.

Here's what mathematician Terry Tao has to say about the videos:

Seven videotaped lectures from 1964 by Richard Feynman given in Cornell, on “The Character of Physical Law“, have recently been put online (by Microsoft Research, through the purchase of these lectures from the Feynman estate by Bill Gates, as described in this interview with Gates), with a number of multimedia enhancements (external links, subtitles, etc.). These lectures, intended for a general audience, broadly cover the same type of material that is in his famous lectures on physics.

I have just finished the first lecture, describing the history and impact of the law of gravitation as a model example of a physical law; I had of course known of Feynman’s reputation as an outstandingly clear, passionate, and entertaining lecturer, but it is quite something else to see that lecturing style directly. The lectures are each about an hour long, but I recommend setting aside the time to view at least one of them, both for the substance of the lecture and for the presentation. His introduction to the first lecture is surprisingly poetic....

[Update, July 15: Of particular interest to mathematicians is his second lecture "The relation of mathematics and physics". He draws several important contrasts between the reasoning of physics and the axiomatic reasoning of formal, settled mathematics, of the type found in textbooks; but it is quite striking to me that the reasoning of unsettled mathematics - recent fields in which the precise axioms and theoretical framework has not yet been fully formalised and standardised - matches Feynman's description of physical reasoning in many ways. I suspect that Feynman's impressions of mathematics as performed by mathematicians in 1964 may differ a little from the way mathematics is performed today.]

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