Notes on Feynman's Lectures

Richard Feynman Nobel laurate photo, from Wikipedia, The Nobel FoundationRichard Feynman is often called the "Great Explainer", because he excelled at explaining complex physical problems to students and laymen. I find it very interisting to watch Richard Feynman's legendary BBC lectures on the laws of physics (Presented on Project TUVA) and jot down some notes. In a nutshell:

  • Feynman pursues a single coherent theme per lecture.
  • He builds up the theme in coherent phases of less than 10 min length.
  • He uses examples and drawings (concrete and picture superiority).
  • He works with mutliple input channels and reaches sensory integration.
  • He builds up arguments point by point, often leading to surprises.
  • He always concludes his lecture in a strong finish.
  • He summarizes the most important insights.

In print: [Feynman2011]. I like to relate them to literature on presentation design, e.g., Made to Stick [Heath2007] and  the SUCCESs paradigm (cf. Notes on Made to Stick).

Structure of the Lecture

Single Theme for the Lecture

  • Feynman establishes a single core idea, a simple theme as topic for the entire lecture
  • This is his core idea, the take-home message.
  • This reminds me of the "Simple" paradigm in SUCCESs (cf. Notes on Made to Stick).

Structured in Coherent Phases

  • Each step of the lecture is a phase with one theme. It establishes an idea or a step in an argument.
  • The phase has a length of less than 10 minutes, which allows to re-grab the audience attention at proper times (cf. Notes on Medina's Brain Rules, Rule #4).
  • Feynman introduces the theme of the phase and the concepts needed.
  • Feynman motivates each phase with one question to answer, e.g., how does the two-hole experiment work with electrons.
  • It's a question that intrigued the scientists, e.g., "Now that we know how the earth revolves around the sun, what makes it move that way?"
  • Feynman uses this question to let emotions shine through, what fascinates and inspires him (emotional aspect of SUCCESs, cf. Notes on Made to Stick)
  • The answer of the question at the end of the phase usually brings a surprise! (unexpected aspect of SUCCESs, cf. Notes on Made to Stick)
  • Feynman gives a summary at the end of each phase, highlighting the most important results and insights. (Repeat to Remember, cf. Notes on Medina's Brain Rules, Rule #5)
  • Also, he lays the ground for the next question.

Strong Finish

  • Feynman uses the last part of his lecture to make a strong statement.
  • It summarizes the most important insights (Remember to Repeat, cf. Notes on Medina's Brain Rules, Rule #6).
  • He uses some very well-chosen sentences to drive his message home.
  • He uses analogy and vivid language, a metapher, a story to close - not just dry facts.
  • The coherent story as closing statement must be very strong, as they are a representation of System 1 and will make up the memory [Kahneman2011]. It's the most important part of the lecture. It reminds me of
    • the peak-end effect observed by Kahneman [Kahneman2011]
      (The final impression and the peak impression will determine the overall impression, not a sum over the duration), and of
    • Rules on presentation design
      (They acquire the last bit of material best).

Elements of Feynman's Lectures

Structure the Argument in Distinct Points

  • Feynman makes one point at a time and structures the points with first, second, etc.
  • Example: "First, what you hear in the electron detectors is 'clicks', electrons come in lumps."
  • Feynman tells his story in very concrete terms.
  • He avoids technical language, whenever possible.
  • He uses anologies and contrast, even for the most incomprehensible and abstract parts of quantum mechanics.
  • Feynman builds up an argument to solicit surprise, for instance, when he shows the interference pattern of electrons.
  • And, he uses a dramatic pause to let the surprise sink in.

Drawings

  • Feynman uses drawings whenever possible (Picture superiority effect!, cf. Notes on Medina's Brain Rules, Rule #10).Feynman drawing a planet's orbit and Kepler's law, taken from the BBC lecture on Gravitation (Project TUVA)
  • He develops the drawings step by step, unfolds the argument with the drawings.
  • Feynman just uses simple-most drawings, by hand with one color. This conveys the idea in simplicity and essence.
  • He imitates real-world experiments, shows physical processes (e.g., doulbe-slit experiment).

Examples

  • In the lecture about symmetry, Feynman starts several sections in a row with "I give you another example".
  • Feynman uses a lot of examples and anologies, e.g., comparing physics with watching a game of chess.
  • The use of examples makes it concrete as well as very detailed and thereby credible (SUCCESs, again, cf. Notes on Made to Stick).
  • He usually starts with the easiest to understand example (e.g., law of electric charge in conservation laws).
  • Feynman makes his examples lively, for instance, say a lightning hits there and we get a electric charge.
  • The example is expressed in a language of the senses, seeing, hearing, smelling even.
  • Feynman does not replace an abstract concept with an abstract example, but makes it utterly concrete (even when it comes to quantum effects).

Presentation Style

  • Feynman working with two boards, taken from the BBC lecture on Randomness (Project TUVA)Feynman uses a separate board for formulas/tables than for drawings.
  • The audience can always see both.
  • Actually, he has
    1. slides (e.g., for showing photos of actual stars),
    2. a board for drawing (e.g., to build up the two-hole experiment),
    3. a board for tables/formulas (e.g., to compare bullets, water waves, and electrons)
  • The structure gives the audience a sense of orientation.
  • He uses visual input, written word and oral description, and thereby reaches sensory integration (cf. Notes on Medina's Brain Rules, Rule #9)
  • Feynman uses his voice for a dramatic effect, for emphasis. Examples:
    • Speech of the pompous philosopher.
    • "The most re-e-e-asonable possibilities..."
  • The use of voice makes his talk very lively (SUCCESs, emotional, cf. Notes on Made to Stick), but also re-grabs attention.
  • Feynman uses acting as well, e.g., in which, he plays out how to look at the electrons passing through holes.

 

Links

References

[Feynman2011] Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. Leighton and Matthew Sands. The Feynman Lectures on Physics, The New Millennium Edition. Basic Books, pp. 1552, ISBN: 9780465023820, January 2011.

[Heath2007] Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Random House, pp. 291, ISBN: 978-1400064281, January 2007.

[Kahneman2011] Daniel Kahneman. Thinking, fast and slow. Allen Lane, pp. 512, ISBN: 978-1846140556, November 2011.