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.

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