This 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 them as textbooks in my undergraduate physics classes. 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.'"
Volume II: the first two-thirds of this series of lectures is devoted to a reasonably inclusive treatment of the physics of electricity and magnetism. This volume's `Foreward' by Matthew Sands states: "We hoped, first, to give the students a complete view of one of the great chapters of physics--from the early gropings of Franklin, through the great synthesis of Maxwell, on to the Lorentz electron theory of material properties, and ending with the still unsolved dilemmas of the electromagnetic self-energy."
There are 42 chapters in Volume II, with the last four chapters devoted to elasticity and fluid flow.
Volume III: Richard P. Feynman won a Nobel Prize for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics, and this series of lectures was the first real attempt to ground physics students in the theory of quantum mechanics. By its nature, quantum mechanics is a mathematical theory, so these lectures are absolutely chock-full of calculus and physics equations. But, as Feynman himself once said, "Do not take the lecture [on quantum mechanics] too seriously...just relax and enjoy it. I am going to tell you what nature behaves like. If you will simply admit that maybe she does behave like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. Do not keep saying to yourself `But how can it be like that?' because you will get...into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that."
There are 21 chapters in Volume III, from "Quantum Behavior" to "The Schrödinger Equation in a Classical Context: A Seminar on Superconductivity."
If the math in Volume III really depresses you, there now exist many good popular-science books on quantum mechanics, such as "In Search of Schrödinger's Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality" by John Gribbin, "The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question?" by Leon Lederman, or Bruce Schumm's book on elementary particle physics, "Deep Down Things: The Breathtaking Beauty of Particle Physics."
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 these books 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."