How Richard Feynman Got From The Square Root of 2 to e


I wanted to bring to greater prominence something that might have got lost in comments. Elke Stangl, author of the Theory And Practice Of Trying To Combine Just Anything blog, noticed that among the Richard Feynman Lectures on Physics, and available online, is his derivation of how to discover e — the base of natural logarithms — from playing around.

e is an important number, certainly, but it’s tricky to explain why it’s important; it hasn’t got a catchy definition like pi has, and even the description that most efficiently says why it’s interesting (“the base of the natural logarithm”) sounds perilously close to technobabble. As an explanation for why e should be interesting Feynman’s text isn’t economical — I make it out as something around two thousand words — but it’s a really good explanation since it starts from a good starting point.

That point is: it’s easy to understand what you mean by raising a number, say 10, to a positive integer: 104, for example, is four tens multiplied together. And it doesn’t take much work to extend that to negative numbers: 10-4 is one divided by the product of four tens multiplied together. Fractions aren’t too bad either: 101/2 would be the number which, multiplied by itself, gives you 10. 103/2 would be 101/2 times 101/2 times 101/2; or if you think this is easier (it might be!), the number which, multiplied by itself, gives you 103. But what about the number 10^{\sqrt{2}} ? And if you can work that out, what about the number 10^{\pi} ?

There’s a pretty good, natural way to go about writing that and as Feynman shows you find there’s something special about some particular number pretty close to 2.71828 by doing so.

Advertisements

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

7 thoughts on “How Richard Feynman Got From The Square Root of 2 to e”

  1. So there is not an easy way to boil down this section to a very short post, is it? I suppose you would need to resort to Taylor’s expansions, I guess? But Feynman tried to do without explaining too much theoretical concepts upfront – so that’s probably why it takes more lines and one complete example…

    Like

    1. I don’t know that the section couldn’t be boiled down to something short, actually; I didn’t think to try. Probably it would be possible to get to the conclusion more quickly, but I think at the cost of giving up Feynman’s fairly clear intention to bring the reader there by a series of leading investigatory questions, of getting there the playful way.

      It’s a good writing exercise to consider, though, and I might give it a try.

      Like

Please Write Something Good

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s