Every now and again, I upload the Feynman Lectures to my iPhone (just reading them really can’t convey the sheer virtuosity of Feynman’s lecturing style), and as much as I enjoy listening to him, I am deeply saddened for two reasons.
First, despite the plethora of video and audio lectures now available on the internet, there is nobody who has come close to matching his ability to describe physics to other scientists. Feynman had intended his lectures for Cal Tech freshmen in the early 1960’s, but despite that, his most devoted audience — by far — has always been people who already understood the physics, but Feynman had this remarkable ability to teach to people who already felt like they understood the material. I’m listening to his discussion of symmetry right now and despite having given similar lectures myself, and having listened to this same lecture at least twice before (according to my iTunes) I still find myself nodding along and realize that some small detail is new to me. He just had a remarkable ability to come up with examples and systems that no-one else had ever thought of before.
What saddens me about this is that since his passing 21 years ago, the world of physics has made some remarkable advances. It’s upsetting to think that there is no Feynman to explain our current picture of the big bang, or of nanotechnology, or of string theory. With all due respect to Walter Lewin at MIT, or Neil Tyson at the Hayden Planetarium or Alex Filipenko at Berkeley, no one has yet approached Feynman’s ability to make evened the most seasoned scientist see things as if they were new.
My second pang — a bittersweet pang, to be sure — comes from the fact that I, myself, can’t ever hope to match Feynman. As someone who likes to think he’s a pretty good lecturer, and who has gotten into the game of popular science writing, I still have to acknowledge that Feynman was, and always will be “The Great Explainer.”