Tag Archives: The Feynman Lectures on Physics

The pleasures of reading Feynman on Physics – V

Feynman finally gets around to discussing tensors 376 pages into volume II in “The Feynman Lectures on Physics” and a magnificent help it is (to me at least).  Tensors must be understood to have a prayer of following the math of General Relativity (a 10 year goal, since meeting classmate Jim Hartle who wrote a book “Gravity” on the subject).

There are so many ways to describe what a tensor is (particularly by mathematicians and physicists) that it isn’t obvious that they are talking about the same thing.   I’ve written many posts about tensors, as the best way to learn something it to try to explain it to someone else (a set of links to the posts will be found at the end).

So why is Feynman so helpful to me?  After plowing through 370 pages of Callahan’s excellent book we get to something called the ‘energy-momentum tensor’, aka the stress-energy tensor.  This floored me as it appeared to have little to do with gravity, talking about flows of energy and momentum. However it is only 5 pages away from the relativistic field equations so it must be understood.

Back in the day, I started reading books about tensors such as the tensor of inertia, the stress tensor etc.  These were usually presented as if you knew why they were developed, and just given in a mathematical form which left my intuition about them empty.

Tensors were developed years before Einstein came up with special relativity (1905) or general relativity (1915).

This is where Feynman is so good.  He starts with the problem of electrical polarizability (which is familiar if you’ve plowed this far through volume II) and shows exactly why a tensor is needed to describe it, e.g. he derives  the tensor from known facts about electromagnetism.  Then on to the tensor of inertia (another derivation).  This allows you to see where all that notation comes from. That’s all very nice, but you are dealing with just matrices.  Then on to tensors over 4 vector spaces (a rank 4 tensor) not the same thing as a 4 tensor which is over a 4 dimensional vector space.

Then finally we get to the 4 tensor (a tensor over a 4 dimensional vector space) of electromagnetic momentum.  Here are the 16 components of Callahan’s energy momentum tensor, clearly explained.  The circle is finally closed.

He briefly goes into the way tensors transform under a change of coordinates, which for many authors is the most important thing about them.   So his discussion doesn’t contain the usual blizzard of superscripts and subscript.  Covariant and contravariant are blessedly absent. Here the best explanation of how they transform is in Jeevanjee “An introduction to Tensors and Group Theory for Physicists”  chapter 3 pp. 51 – 74.

Here are a few of the posts I’ve written about tensors trying to explain them to myself (and hopefully you)






The pleasures of reading Feynman on Physics – II

If you’re tired of hearing and thinking about COVID-19 24/7 even when you don’t want to, do what I did when I was a neurology resident 50+ years ago making clever diagnoses and then standing helplessly by while patients died.  Back then I read topology and the intense concentration required to absorb and digest the terms and relationships, took me miles and miles away.  The husband of one of my interns was a mathematician, and she said he would dream about mathematics.

Presumably some of the readership are chemists with graduate degrees, meaning that part of their acculturation as such was a course in quantum mechanics.  Back in the day it was pretty much required of chemistry grad students — homage a Prof. Marty Gouterman who taught the course to us 3 years out from his PhD in 1961.  Definitely a great teacher.  Here he is now, a continent away — http://faculty.washington.edu/goutermn/.

So for those happy souls I strongly recommend volume III of The Feynman Lectures on Physics.  Equally strongly do I recommend getting the Millennium Edition which has been purged of the 1,100 or so errors found in the 3 volumes over the years.

“Traditionally, all courses in quantum mechanics have begun in the same way, retracing the path followed in the historical development of the subject.  One first learns a great deal about classical mechanics so that he will be able to understand how to solve the Schrodinger equation.  Then he spends a long time working out various solutions.  Only after a detailed study of this equation does he get to the advanced subject of the electron’s spin.”

The first half of volume III is about spin

Feynman doesn’t even get to the Hamiltonian until p. 88.  I’m almost half through volume III and there has been no sighting of the Schrodinger equation so far.  But what you will find are clear explanations of Bosons and Fermions and why they are different, how masers and lasers operate (they are two state spin systems), how one electron holds two protons together, and a great explanation of covalent bonding.  Then there is great stuff beyond the ken of most chemists (at least this one) such as the Yukawa explanation of the strong nuclear force, and why neutrons and protons are really the same.  If you’ve read about Bell’s theorem proving that ‘spooky action at a distance must exist’, you’ll see where the numbers come from quantum mechanically that are simply impossible on a classical basis.  Zeilinger’s book “The Dance of the Photons” goes into this using .75 (which Feynman shows is just cos(30)^2.

Although Feynman doesn’t make much of a point about it, the essentiality of ‘imaginary’ numbers (complex numbers) to the entire project of quantum mechanics impressed me.  Without them,  wave interference is impossible.

I’m far from sure a neophyte could actually learn QM from Feynman, but having mucked about using and being exposed to QM and its extensions for 60 years, Feynman’s development of the subject is simply a joy to read.

So get the 3 volumes and plunge in.  You’ll forget all about the pandemic (for a while anyway)


Book idea proposal

While up in Nova Scotia (where the people are as friendly as midwesterners) on vacation reading Feynman I got an idea for a book.  Unfortunately, I don’t think anyone has the breadth of knowledge of physics that Feynman did, so no single person can write it.

Remember that the Feynman lectures were delivered in 1963 – 4.  The authors of the Millennium edition noted that > 1,000 errors were corrected in the various editions (which is a good reason to buy it, if you’re studying it on your own).  But almost none of them were conceptual.

So the lectures are  true as of 1964 and brilliant to boot.  As Kip Thorne notes in “Modern Classical Physics”  — “The three-volume Feynman Lectures on Physics had a big influence on several generations of physicists and even more so on their teachers.Both of us (Blandford and Thorne) are immensely indebted to Richard Feynman for shaping our own approaches to physics”.

The idea for the book came as early as p. 2-7 in Volume I, where Feynman says “no phenomenon directly involving a frequency has yet been detected above approximately 10^12 cycles per second”.  Well we’re up to 10^18 presently and shooting higher.

p 3-5 “all enzymes are proteins.”  Not so and a Nobel was won for the first RNA enzyme to be discovered.

p. 7 – 7  What is holding galaxies together — a mention of dark matter would be interesting.

p. 9 – 9 “A very good computing machine may take 1 microsecond to do an addition”  — we’re up to 10^18 exaFlops (of floating point calculations) not addition.

Well you get the idea.  I have no idea what the size of the market would be, but I’d love to see something like this.

Something similar was actually done with the Origin of Species.  Darwin’s Ghost by Steve Jones (published in 1999) updates Darwin’s book, the Origin of Species (published 1999)  to contemporary thinking (and knowledge) chapter by chapter.   It is fascinating to go through both together.

The book would be one of the few things better done by a committee