Alternate Way to Handle Electrodynamics

by Richard P. Feynman,
December 13, 1963
© California Institute of Technology

In his Preface to The Feynman Lectures on Physics (1963) Richard Feynman wrote, "In the second year I was not so satisfied. In the first part of the course, dealing with electricity and magnetism, I couldn't think of any really unique or different way of doing it - of any way that would be particularly more exciting than the usual way of presenting it. So I don't think I did very much in the lectures on electricity and magnetism."

Three years later, in an interview for the AIP with Charles Weiner, Feynman said "I didn't like to do the second year, because I didn't think I had great ideas about how to present the second year. I felt that I didn't have a good idea on how to do lectures on electrodynamics. But, you see, in these challenges that had existed before about lectures, they had challenged me to explain relativity, challenged me to explain quantum mechanics, challenged me to explain the relation of mathematics to physics, the conservation of energy. I answered every challenge. But there was one challenge which nobody asked, which I had set myself, because I didn't know how to do it. I've never succeeded yet. Now I think I know how to do it. I haven't done it, but I'll do it someday. And that is this: How would you explain Maxwell's equations? How would you explain the laws of electricity and magnetism to a layman, almost a layman, a very intelligent person, in an hour lecture? How do you do it? I've never solved it. Okay, so give me two hours of lecture. But it should be done in an hour of lecture, somehow -- or two hours. Anyhow I've now cooked up a much better way of presenting the electrodynamics, a much more original and much more powerful way than is in the book. But at that time I had no new way, and I complained that I had nothing extra to contribute for myself. But they said, 'Do it anyway,' and they talked me into it, so I did."

Many people have wondered what Feynman meant by "a much better way of presenting electrodynamics," including myself, and Carver Mead after I mentioned this interview to him in 2008. This led me to research the question in the Caltech Archives, where I discovered the five pages of notes posted here, written during the year Feynman was teaching electrodynamics, in which he describes what he had in mind. Recently this question was raised on the Physics Stack Exchange, which motivated me to seek permission to post Feynman's notes on the subject.

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Transcript available here. Note: The original pages were written in pencil and now, 52 years later, they are barely legible. The above scans were contrast-enhanced for readability. Unfortunately the scanner had a problem with uneven illumination and that is why you will see a light-colored vertical band, which is not present in the original pages.

These notes have been posted at with the gracious permission of the estate of Richard P. Feynman and The California Institute of Technology. The originals can be found in Box 62, Folder 8 Working Notes, And Calculations, in The Feynman Papers at the Caltech Archives.