This first volume of the original 3-volume, 1963 - 1965 edition of Nobel-prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman's lectures to Caltech freshmen and sophomores has been part of my library ever since I was introduced to it as a textbook in my freshman physics class. Volume I concentrates on mechanics, radiation, and heat; Volume II on electromagnetism and matter; and Volume III on quantum mechanics.
Volume I: the first three chapters ("Atoms in Motion," "Basic Physics," and "The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences") were meant by Feynman to outline the relationship of physics to other sciences, and other sciences to each other, and to discuss the overall meaning of `Science.' Here in the introduction to Volume I, Feynman iterates one of his most-quoted ideas on science: "If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis...that `all things are made of atoms--little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.'"
There are 52 chapters in Volume I, from "Atoms in Motion" to "Symmetry in Physical Laws." It would be well to remember that this book and its fellows are not meant to be read in isolation. Rather the lectures were connected with a series of experiments and demonstrations. As Feynman puts it: "The principle of science, the definition, almost, is the following: `The test of all knowledge is experiment.'"
Before my introduction to this book, I had always thought of mechanics as the least glamorous (most boring) aspect of physics, and couldn't wait to move on to nuclear physics. The study of levers, friction on inclined planes, etc. had certainly been boring in high school. However, Feynman goes nuclear (or at least atomic) from the very first pages of these lectures. We study the characteristics of force, not just as they relate to weights on a spring or sliding bodies on a plane, but right down to the level of molecular and electromagnetic forces.
Nor does Feynman confine himself to the realm of the small. His students are soon hurtled out of the atomic realm, and asked to consider the orbit of Sirius B with respect to Sirius A, and the physics responsible for the shapes of galaxies.
These lectures by Richard P. Feynman were meant for physics students, as opposed to the general public. Those readers who have no background in physics, calculus, statistics and probability might find this book tough going. However, any of us might struggle through certain sections with no loss of self-worth, if we remember that one of America's most brilliant scientists gave two years of his knowledge and intellectual energy in order to present us with a solid understanding of his physicist's universe. Feynman says in his epilogue to these lectures: "Finally, may I add that the main purpose of my teaching has not been to prepare you for some examination...I wanted most to give you some appreciation of the wonderful world and the physicist's way of looking at it, which, I believe, is a major part of the true culture of modern times."