The Best Teacher I Never Had

Thirty years ago I went on vacation and fell for Richard Feynman.

A friend and I were planning a trip together and wanted to mix a little learning in with our relaxation. We looked at a local university’s film collection, saw that they had one of his lectures on physics, and checked it out. We loved it so much that we ended up watching it twice. Feynman had this amazing knack for making physics clear and fun at the same time. I immediately went looking for more of his talks, and I’ve been a big fan ever since. Years later I bought the rights to those lectures and worked with Microsoft to get them posted online for free.

In 1965, Feynman shared a Nobel Prize for work on particle physics. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of that honor, the California Institute of Technology—where he taught for many years before his death in 1988—asked for some thoughts about what made him so special. Here’s the video I sent:

In that video, I especially love the way Feynman explains how fire works. He takes such obvious delight in knowledge—you can see his face light up. And he makes it so clear that anyone can understand it.

In that sense, Feynman has a lot in common with all the amazing teachers I’ve met in schools across the country. You walk into their classroom and immediately feel the energy—the way they engage their students—and their passion for whatever subject they’re teaching. These teachers aren’t famous, but they deserve just as much respect and admiration as someone like Feynman. If there were a Nobel for making high school algebra exciting and fun, I know a few teachers I would nominate.

Incidentally, Feynman wasn’t famous just for being a great teacher and a world-class scientist; he was also quite a character. He translated Mayan hieroglyphics. He loved to play the bongos. While helping develop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, he entertained himself by figuring out how to break into the safes that contained top-secret research. (Feynman cultivated this image as a colorful guy. His colleague Murray Gell-Mann, a Nobel Prize–winner in his own right, once remarked, “Feynman was a great scientist, but he spent a great deal of his effort generating anecdotes about himself.”)

Here are some suggestions if you’d like to know more about Feynman or his work:

  • The Messenger Lectures on Physics. These are the talks that first captivated me back in the 1980s and that you see briefly in the video above. The site is a few years old, but you can watch for free along with some helpful commentary.
  • Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher is a collection of the most accessible parts of Feynman’s famous Caltech lectures on physics.
  • He recounted his adventures in two very good books, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? You won’t learn a lot about physics, but you’ll have a great time hearing his stories.

Reference: https://www.gatesnotes.com/Education/The-Best-Teacher-I-Never-Had


About

Professor of Physics, Director of Undergraduate Research, STEM Consultant, STEAM Practitioner


STEAM is STEM4ALL