‘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:

The “Feyn­man Tech­nique” for Study­ing Effec­tive­ly: An Ani­mat­ed Primer

How Richard Feynman’s Dia­grams Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Physics

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

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