Feynman and Darwin

What do Richard Feynman and Charles Darwin have in common?  Both have written books which show a brilliant mind at work.  I’ve started reading the New Millennium Edition of Feynman’s Lectures on Physics (which is the edition you should get as all 1165 errata found over the years have been corrected), and like Darwin his thought processes and their power are laid out for all to see.  Feynman’s books are far from F = ma.  They are basically polished versions of lectures, so it reads as if Feynman is directly talking to you.  Example: “We have already discussed the difference between knowing the rules of the game of chess and being able to play.”  Another: talking about Zeno  “The Greeks were somewhat confused by such problems, being helped, of course, by some very confusing Greeks.”

He’s always thinking about the larger implications of what we know.  Example: “Newton’s law has the peculiar property that if it is right on a certain small scale, then it will be right on a larger scale”

He then takes this idea and runs with it.  “Newton’s laws are the ‘tail end’ of the atomic laws extrapolated to a very large size”  The fact that they are extrapolatable and the fact that way down below are the atoms producing them means, that extrapolatable laws are the only type of physical law which could be discovered by us (until we could get down to the atomic level).  Marvelous.  Then he notes that the fundamental atomic laws (e.g. quantum mechanics) are NOTHING like what we see in the large scale environment in which we live.

If you like this sort of thing, you’ll love the books.  I don’t think they would be a good way to learn physics for the first time however.  No problems, etc. etc.  But once you’ve had exposure to some physics “it is good to sit at the feet of the master” — Bill Gates.

Most of the readership is probably fully engaged with work, family career and doesn’t have time to actually read “The Origin of Species”. In retirement, I did,and the power of Darwin’s mind is simply staggering. He did so much with what little information he had. There was no clear idea of how heredity worked and at several points he’s a Lamarckian — inheritance of acquired characteristics. If you do have the time I suggest that you read the 1859 book chapter by chapter along with a very interesting book — Darwin’s Ghost by Steve Jones (published in 1999) which update’s Darwin’s book to contemporary thinking chapter by chapter.  Despite the advances in knowledge in 140 years, Darwin’s thinking beats Jones hands down chapter by chapter.

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  • Ashutosh  On August 26, 2019 at 11:21 am

    I had studied vol 1 and half of vol 2 of Feynman in college with a patient teacher when I was in college, and it was a tremendous experience. You are right that it’s quite unconventional and won’t serve well as a traditional physics textbook, but if you want to understand what looking at the world looks like, see no further.

    I also read Darwin for the time time in detail from cover to cover for the first time last year, and it’s truly extraordinary how many things he gets right (sometimes as throwaway comments), the sheer of breadth of territory he covers and the modesty and simplicity in the writing.

  • Anonymous  On August 31, 2019 at 2:17 pm

    I had the misfortune to have all three volumes as the only required texts for our two year physics sequence. Errors and all. I quickly purchased another text so I could al least work on the assigned problem sets.

    • luysii  On September 3, 2019 at 9:14 am

      The errors are particularly difficult to deal with, if you were studying far from university and if your study was prior to the internet. You automatically assume that anything you don’t understand is your problem rather than the text’s. I think it would be very hard to learn how to do problems from Feynman. He even mentions this “We have already discussed the difference between knowing the rules of the game of chess and being able to play.”

  • cthulhu  On September 2, 2019 at 11:11 pm

    The Feynman lectures are online with SVG figures and perfect MathJAX typesetting: http://www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu/

    • luysii  On September 3, 2019 at 9:17 am

      Can you make your own notes in the online text? Not sure you can. One of the nice things about the books, is that the margins are wide, with plenty of room for notes. One of the UNnice things about the books is that there is a lot of glare from the page. Most lights are in front of what you are reading bouncing photons from light to text to your eye. I haven’t figured a good way to get the reading light behind me. Daylight is great, as the lighting is diffuse and there is no glare.

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