‘The Character of Physical Law’: Richard Feynman’s Legendary Course Presented at Cornell, 1964

Lec­ture One, The Law of Grav­i­ta­tion:

“Nature,” said physi­cist Richard Feyn­man, “uses only the longest threads to weave her pat­terns, so that each small piece of her fab­ric reveals the orga­ni­za­tion of the entire tapes­try.”

With those words Feyn­man end­ed the first of his famous 1964 Mes­sen­ger Lec­tures at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty, a talk enti­tled “The Law of Grav­i­ta­tion, an Exam­ple of Phys­i­cal Law.” (See above.) The lec­tures were intend­ed by Feyn­man as an intro­duc­tion, not to the fun­da­men­tal laws of nature, but to the very nature of such laws. The lec­tures were lat­er tran­scribed and col­lect­ed in The Char­ac­ter of Phys­i­cal Law, one of Feyn­man’s most wide­ly read books. In the intro­duc­tion to the Mod­ern Library edi­tion, writer James Gle­ick gives a brief assess­ment of the charis­mat­ic man at the lectern:

Feyn­man, then forty-six years old, did the­o­ret­i­cal physics as spec­tac­u­lar­ly as any­one alive. He was due to win the Nobel Prize the next year for his ground­break­ing work in the 1940s in quan­tum elec­tro­dy­nam­ics, a the­o­ry that tied togeth­er in an exper­i­men­tal­ly per­fect pack­age all the var­ied phe­nom­e­na at work in light, radio, mag­net­ism, and elec­tric­i­ty. He had tak­en the cen­tu­ry’s ear­ly, half-made con­cep­tions of waves and par­ti­cles and shaped them into tools that ordi­nary physi­cists could use and under­stand. This was eso­teric science–more so in the decades that followed–and Feyn­man was not a house­hold name out­side physics, but with­in his field he had devel­oped an astound­ing stature. He had a mys­tique that came in part from sheer prag­mat­ic brilliance–in any group of sci­en­tists he could cre­ate a dra­mat­ic impres­sion by slash­ing his way through a dif­fi­cult problem–and in part, too, from his per­son­al style–rough-hewn, Amer­i­can, seem­ing­ly uncul­ti­vat­ed.

All sev­en of Feyn­man’s lec­tures were record­ed by the British Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion and pre­sent­ed as part of BBC Two’s “Fur­ther Edu­ca­tion Scheme.” In 2009 Bill Gates bought the rights to the videos and made them avail­able to the pub­lic on Microsoft­’s Project Tuva Web site.

Since then the series has become avail­able on YouTube for eas­i­er view­ing. As you scroll down the page you can access the videos which, “more than any oth­er record­ed image or doc­u­ment,” writes physi­cist Lawrence Krauss in Quan­tum Man: Richard Feyn­man’s Life in Sci­ence, “cap­ture the real Feyn­man, play­ful, bril­liant, excit­ed, charis­mat­ic, ener­getic, and no non­sense.”

You can find the remain­ing video lec­tures below:

Lec­ture Two, The Rela­tion of Math­e­mat­ics to Physics:

Lec­ture Three, The Great Con­ser­va­tion Prin­ci­ples:

Lec­ture Four, Sym­me­try in Phys­i­cal Law:

Lec­ture Five, The Dis­tinc­tion of Past and Future:

Lec­ture Six, Prob­a­bil­i­ty and Uncertainty–The Quan­tum Mechan­i­cal View of Nature:

Lec­ture Sev­en, Seek­ing New Laws:

You can find this course indexed in our list of Free Online Physics Cours­es, a sub­set of our col­lec­tion, 1,700 Free Online Cours­es from Top Uni­ver­si­ties.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mod­ern Physics: A Free 6‑Course Intro­duc­tion by Stanford’s Leonard Susskind

The Feyn­man Lec­tures on Physics, The Most Pop­u­lar Physics Book Ever Writ­ten, Is Now Com­plete­ly Online

Quan­tum Physics Made Rel­a­tive­ly Sim­ple: A Free Mini Course from Nobel Prize-Win­ning Physi­cist Hans Bethe

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Comments (8)
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  • Mr. Thomas of Ohio, in America, but of a good nature; says:

    Wow. I might as well drop out of my physics class­es and start deci­pher­ing ancient Cop­tic runes as my main source of sci­en­tif­ic info. Because appar­ent­ly (at least at Open­Cul­ture) old­er sci­ence is bet­ter sci­ence.

    • Shadeburst says:

      Richard Feyn­man said that out of his spe­cial­i­ty a sci­en­tist is just as dumb as the next guy, espe­cial­ly when he’s a physics stu­dent lol. This video lec­ture series is not about the physics. It’s about a rock star of physics named Richard Feyn­man.

  • Ashuron says:

    Great videos..
    I thought they took down all of these videos from youtube. I thought Microsoft want to keep tuva as the only source for these videos.

  • Kishor Bhat says:

    @Mr.Ohio… just because Open­Cul­ture decid­ed to pay homage to one of the great­est minds of sci­ence of the 1900s does not imply that they are sup­port­ing old­er sci­ence over that of the mod­ern day. Log­i­cal fal­la­cy, maybe?

  • Faze says:

    Mr. Thomas:
    (I’m also of Ohio), Feyn­man address­es this very issue of “why dis­cuss old sci­ence” at the very begin­ning of his lec­ture on grav­i­ty. It’s kind of inter­est­ing. You should watch it.

  • Jude nagwere says:

    I do agree with the ancient sci­ence because the letest one require some resump­tions from the suposed ‘iso­lat­ed cas­es’ of the old.

  • Jebali Farid says:

    I am very sor­ry to get out of the sub­ject.
    I have devel­oped a the­o­ry called cos­mic time. This the­o­ry chal­lenges Albert Ein­stein’s the­o­ry of gen­er­al rel­a­tiv­i­ty in terms of time, space and grav­i­ty , There is no direct rela­tion­ship between space and time, if this the­o­ry proved empir­i­cal­ly valid, many phys­i­cal rules will change , Our vision of the uni­verse will be clear­er , Please allow me to dis­cuss it and thank you.
    Jebali Farid

  • Nelson Joseph Raglione says:

    Hel­lo Gen­tle Peo­ple:

    A fact from the past is as valid today as new­ly dis­cov­ered facts.
    Sci­ence is a study of facts and sci­ence from the past con­tain­ing prov­able facts is just as rel­e­vant as is sci­ence today con­tain­ing more new­ly dis­cov­ered and com­pli­cat­ed prov­able facts.
    Knowl­edge is an evo­lu­tion­ary lad­der cre­at­ed from facts. Ein­stein cre­at­ed a for­mu­la. Ener­gy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Can we we reverse his for­mu­la? Ener­gy minus the speed of light squared equals mass and den­si­ty is cre­at­ed when ener­gy is slowed down. A ques­tion I am hop­ing you can prove. Thanks for read­ing.
    N.J. Raglione

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