Feynman Online Physics

Likely everybody in the world has already spotted this before, but what the heck: CalTech and the Feynman Lectures Website have put online an edition of volume one of The Feynman Lectures on Physics. This is an HTML 5 edition, so older web browsers might not be able to read it sensibly.

The Feynman Lectures are generally regarded as one of the best expositions of basic physics; they started as part of an introduction to physics class that spiralled out of control and that got nearly all the freshmen who were trying to take it lost. I know the sense of being lost; when I was taking introductory physics I turned to them on the theory they might help me understand what the instructor was going on about. It didn’t help me.

This isn’t because Feynman wasn’t explaining well what was going on. It’s just that he approached things with a much deeper, much broader perspective than were really needed for me to figure out my problems in — oh, I’m not sure, probably something like how long a block needs to slide down a track or something like that. Here’s a fine example, excerpted from Chapter 5-2, “Time”:

Let us consider first what we mean by time. What is time? It would be nice if we could find a good definition of time. Webster defines “a time” as “a period,” and the latter as “a time,” which doesn’t seem to be very useful. Perhaps we should say: “Time is what happens when nothing else happens.” Which also doesn’t get us very far. Maybe it is just as well if we face the fact that time is one of the things we probably cannot define (in the dictionary sense), and just say that it is what we already know it to be: it is how long we wait!

What really matters anyway is not how we define time, but how we measure it. One way of measuring time is to utilize something which happens over and over again in a regular fashion—something which is periodic. For example, a day. A day seems to happen over and over again. But when you begin to think about it, you might well ask: “Are days periodic; are they regular? Are all days the same length?” One certainly has the impression that days in summer are longer than days in winter. Of course, some of the days in winter seem to get awfully long if one is very bored. You have certainly heard someone say, “My, but this has been a long day!”

[ … Trimming some paragraphs about how one might gain confidence about measuring whether days are roughly about the same length of time … ]

We now have some confidence that both the “hour” and the “day” have a regular periodicity, i.e., mark off successive equal intervals of time, although we have not proved that either one is “really” periodic. Someone might question whether there might not be some omnipotent being who would slow down the flow of sand every night and speed it up during the day. Our experiment does not, of course, give us an answer to this sort of question. All we can say is that we find that a regularity of one kind fits together with a regularity of another kind. We can just say that we base our definition of time on the repetition of some apparently periodic event.

All reasonably clear and (I can’t avoid noticing) done without an equation of any kind. It all looks like it’s meant to discuss the problems of measurement which are too easy to forget about in the introduction to physics, at least outside the laboratory section where wooden blocks are forced to dangle from strings for us to verify that simple harmonic motion I guess? checks out. But he’s also laid the philosophical grounds that make slipping into special and general relativity not the change of perspective that an ordinary text makes, but rather an extension of what’s already been accepted. That’s a very different, and deeper, way of setting up the subject.