Was Richard Feynman a Nice Trainer?

Invoice Gates lately printed a weblog submit The Greatest Trainer I By no means Had with an connected video extolling the virtues of Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize successful physicist and Caltech professor, as a trainer. Was Richard Feynman an excellent trainer?

Considered one of Feynman’s primary claims to greatness as a trainer is the two-year introductory course in physics that he taught to freshmen and sophomores at Caltech (the California Institute of Know-how) from 1961 to 1963 that gave rise to the three quantity set of purple The Feynman Lectures on Physics that generations of Caltech freshman dutifully bought every year. These are actually accessible on-line.


Right here is James Gleick and David Goodstein in Gleick’s biography of Feynman, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, on Feynman’s well-known two-year “introductory” course in physics:

The course was a magisterial achievement: phrase was spreading by the scientific neighborhood even earlier than it ended. However it was not for freshmen. Because the months went on, the examination outcomes left Feynman shocked and discouraged.

Gleick, James (2011-02-22). Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (pp. 362-363). Open Street Media. Kindle Version.

and somewhat additional on:

One other Caltech physicist, David Goodstein, mentioned lengthy afterward, “I’ve spoken to a few of these college students in latest instances, and within the mild glow of dim reminiscence, every has advised me that having two years of physics from Feynman himself was the expertise of a lifetime.” The fact was totally different:

Because the course wore on, attendance by the children on the lectures began dropping alarmingly, however on the similar time, increasingly college and graduate college students began attending, so the room stayed full, and Feynman could by no means have identified he was dropping his meant viewers.

Gleick, James (2011-02-22). Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (p. 363). Open Street Media. Kindle Version.

That is Richard Feynman’s personal evaluation of his course from his preface to the print version:

The query, in fact, is how nicely this experiment has succeeded. My very own viewpoint — which, nonetheless, doesn’t appear to be shared by the general public who labored with the scholars — is pessimistic. I don’t assume I did very nicely by the scholars. Once I have a look at the way in which nearly all of the scholars dealt with the issues on the examinations, I believe the system is a failure. In fact, my associates level out to me that there have been one or two dozen college students who — very surprisingly — understood nearly every thing in the entire lectures, and who had been fairly lively in working with the fabric and worrying concerning the many factors in an excited and manner. These individuals have now, I imagine, a primary price background in physics — and they’re, in spite of everything, those I used to be making an attempt to get at. However then, “The ability of instruction is seldom of a lot efficacy besides in these comfortable inclinations the place it’s nearly superfluous. ” (Gibbon)

Richard P. Feynman, 1963

Shiny Crimson Paperweights

Once I attended Caltech, all incoming freshmen had been required to attend an orientation on Santa Catalina island off the coast of Southern California. The standard Caltech freshman on the time was a math and science overachiever, a category valedictorian with a number of science and/or math prizes and a math SAT within the mid 700’s, typically from a prime public or non-public faculty such because the Bronx Excessive College of Science. On the time, Caltech had a horrendous dropout price with about thirty p.c of incoming freshmen leaving Caltech, principally for different faculties. The orientation appeared partially an unsuccessful try to cope with this downside. Caltech claims the drop out price is significantly better right this moment.

As a part of the orientation, we had been divided into small teams and assigned an upperclassman to present us the within scoop on Caltech. Our group chief gave us the within scoop on the Feynman Lectures: “sure, you’ll purchase the Feynman Lectures as a result of everybody does, however you’ll discover them completely ineffective for studying introductory physics. They’ll simply sit in your bookshelf.”

Yep, that’s precisely what occurred. To offer Feynman his due, upon getting discovered a lot of physics and reached graduate faculty or past, the Feynman Lectures comprise many attention-grabbing factors which you could now recognize, discussions of refined nuances of physics, and so forth, very similar to Gleick and Goodstein’s feedback on the unique class at Caltech. However introductory physics they don’t seem to be!

Was this good instructing? No. Not if the purpose is to impart data efficiently to college students.

What Caltech truly did was to show the primary yr physics course from an ordinary physics textbook — not written by Feynman — that was required, however strongly inspired the freshman physics college students to purchase the Feynman Lectures as an non-obligatory additional set of physics texts.

Correspondence Programs

Once I attended Caltech, the college was infamous for “correspondence programs” wherein huge title college would ship terrible, boring, typically uninformative lectures and college students wouldn’t attend however as an alternative ship tape recorders of their place. Sure this did occur. It’s referenced within the 1985 film Actual Genius, very loosely primarily based on Caltech throughout this era however with numerous Hollywood exaggerations, which options scenes of a professor lecturing to a number of tape recorders after which later the professor’s tape recorder lecturing to the scholars’ tape recorders in an empty classroom. No I by no means noticed a professor ship a tape recorder to present his lecture.

Richard Feynman handed away in 1988 and he was nonetheless lively at Caltech in the course of the interval that I attended the varsity. Notably he did not train the usual undergraduate programs though he often gave a visitor lecture. He did host an off-the-cuff get along with undergraduates generally known as Physics X wherein undergraduate Caltech college students might ask him questions, however this was actually not an ordinary physics, science, or math course for undergraduates and offers restricted proof of his abilities as a trainer of school stage physics.

There’s a severe level on this. Most of the huge title researchers at Caltech had been horrible academics for undergraduates. They omitted key steps and ideas that they took as a right however which it was their job to show in introductory programs. They did not assign or carry out ample observe and drilling for fundamental ideas and strategies that they had been supposed to show in undergraduate programs. They assigned fairly superior issues as homework and examination issues in introductory programs, issues involving subtleties of physics and different fields that college students wouldn’t encounter or grasp till superior undergraduate or graduate stage programs. They used superior issues as instructing examples in lectures in introductory programs as nicely. Many had been merely boring — clearly not a weak spot of Richard Feynman. Trying again, the horrible instructing was a significant contributing issue to the excessive dropout price at Caltech.

College students wanted to acknowledge not solely that the instructing was horrible, but in addition what was unsuitable and to carry out a considerable amount of unassigned work to compensate for the gaps within the instructing for which their dad and mom or in some circumstances the scholars had been paying some huge cash.


Caltech closely promoted Richard Feynman whereas he was nonetheless alive, convincing lots of of Caltech undergraduates to buy The Feynman Lectures every year in addition to an unknown variety of teenage and younger grownup readers of Scientific American wherein Caltech often ran commercials for the Lectures. After Richard Feynman handed away, he developed a bigger cult following within the common tradition — particularly amongst nerds and would-be nerds — with the publication of a wide range of books resembling James Gleick’s Genius, documentaries and so forth, which has been known as Feynmania by some.

Richard Feynman was additionally a shameless and highly-effective self-promoter as Invoice Gates notes, quoting the Nobel Prize successful physicist, Caltech professor, Feynman colleague and rival Murray Gell-Mann: “Feynman was an excellent scientist, however he spent an excessive amount of his effort producing anecdotes about himself.”

There isn’t a query that Richard Feynman might be a really entertaining speaker. I personally witnessed this at Caltech. Nonetheless an entertaining lecture that pursuits an viewers in science or a technical matter is just not the identical as a lecture that efficiently imparts data to an viewers — true instructing.

Huge title researchers are normally adept at selling their analysis, making it sound cool, thrilling, and worthy of funding. This typically entails the usage of catchy non-technical metaphors — space-time on the whole relativity is sort of a rubber sheet for instance — with as little arithmetic as doable (typically none) and colourful human curiosity tales, one thing Feynman excelled at. This salesmanship typically doesn’t translate into being trainer, actually on the undergraduate stage.


Was Richard Feynman an excellent trainer? Most likely not on the undergraduate stage. Is he a mannequin that Okay-12 and undergraduate academics and faculty professors ought to emulate, as Invoice Gates appears to counsel? Reviewing the precise historical past of The Feynman Lectures on Physics and the 1960’s “introductory” course on physics taught by Feynman that the well-known purple books are primarily based on, most likely not.

There’s a larger image concern right here. Richard Feynman constructed an “introductory” physics course at Caltech appropriate primarily for maybe imaginary excessive physics prodigies like himself or how he pictured himself as an eighteen yr outdated. It’s an open query how nicely the precise eighteen yr outdated Feynman would have finished within the forty-three yr outdated Feynman’s “introductory” physics course. Like many adults had Feynman misplaced contact with what it had been wish to be eighteen? In any case, such excessive physics prodigies made up solely a small fraction of the extremely certified undergraduate college students at Caltech both within the 1960’s or 1980’s. An academic system designed by excessive prodigies for excessive prodigies, typically from educational households, extraordinarily rich households, or different uncommon backgrounds uncommon even amongst most prime college students as conventionally outlined, is a prescription for catastrophe for the overwhelming majority of scholars and society at massive.

When billionaires like Invoice Gates with very uncommon backgrounds (Gates is at the very least a fourth technology millionaire with a rich banker as his great-grandfather) and lives got down to reform training in extremely deprived areas resembling rural Kentucky, Newark, New Jersey, and Washington D.C. far outdoors their private {and professional} expertise, are they like Feynman out of contact with their meant viewers and imposing wholly unrealistic expectations and requirements on “atypical individuals” who can in poor health afford to contradict the world’s wealthiest individuals?

© 2016 John F. McGowan

In regards to the Writer

John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves issues utilizing arithmetic and mathematical software program, together with creating gesture recognition for contact gadgets, video compression and speech recognition applied sciences. He has in depth expertise creating software program in C, C++, MATLAB, Python, Visible Fundamental and lots of different programming languages. He has been a Visiting Scholar at HP Labs creating pc imaginative and prescient algorithms and software program for cell gadgets. He has labored as a contractor at NASA Ames Analysis Heart concerned within the analysis and improvement of picture and video processing algorithms and know-how. He has printed articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the invention of methane on Mars), and low-cost entry to area. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the College of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Know-how (Caltech). He may be reached at [email protected].