“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:
We all think we know just what Albert Einstein looked like — and broadly speaking, we’ve got it right. At least since his death in 1955, since which time generation after generation of children around the world have grown up closely associating his bristly mustache and semi-tamed gray hair with the very concept of scientific genius. His sartorial rumpledness and Teutonically hangdog look have long been the stuff of not just caricature, but (as in Nicolas Roeg’s Insignificance) earnest tribute as well. Yet how many of us can say we’ve really taken a good look at Einstein?
Even earlier colorized newsreel footage appears in the video just above, taken from an episode of the Smithsonian Channel series America in Color. It depicts Einstein arriving in the United States in 1930, by which time he was already “the world’s most famous physicist” — a position then meriting a welcome not unlike that which the Beatles would receive 34 years later.
Einstein returned to his native Germany after that visit. The America in Color clip also shows him back at his cottage outside Berlin (and in his pajamas), but his time back in his homeland amounted only to a few years. The reason: Hitler. During Einstein’s visiting professorship at Cal Tech in 1933, the Gestapo raided his cottage and Berlin apartment, as well as confiscated his sailboat. Later the Nazi government banned Jews from holding official positions, including at universities, effectively cutting off his professional prospects and those of no few other German citizens besides. The 1943 color footage above offers a glimpse of Einstein a decade into his American life.
A couple of years thereafter, the end of the Second World War made Einstein even more famous. He became, in the minds of many Americans, the brilliant physicist who “helped discover the atom bomb.” So declares the announcer in that first newsreel, but in the decades since, the public has come to associate Einstein more instinctively with his theory of relativity — an achievement less immediately comprehensible than the apocalyptic explosion of the atomic bomb, but one whose scientific implications run much deeper. Many clear and lucid précis of Einstein’s theory exist, but why not first see it explained by the man himself, and in color at that?
There have been more than 2,000 nuclear explosions in all of history — which, in the case of the technology required to detonate a nuclear explosion, goes back only 76 years. It all began, according to the animated video above, on July 16, 1945, with the nuclear device code-named Trinity. The fruit of the labors of the Manhattan Project, its explosion famously brought to the mind of theoretical physicist Robert J. Oppenhemier a passage from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” But however revelatory a spectacle Trinity provided, it turned out merely to be the overture of the nuclear age.
Created by Ehsan Rezaie of Orbital Mechanics, the video offers a simple-looking but deceptively information-rich presentation of every nuclear explosion that has so far occurred. It belongs to a perhaps unlikely but nevertheless decisively established genre, the animated nuclear-explosion time-lapse, of which we’ve previously featured examples from Business Insider’s Alex Kuzoian and artist Isao Hasimoto here on Open Culture.
The size of each circle that erupts on the world map indicates the relative power of the explosion in its location (all information also provided in the scrolling text on the lower left); those detonated underground appear in yellow, those detonated underwater in blue, and those detonated in the atmosphere in red.
Trinity created an atmospheric explosion above New Mexico’s Jornada del Muerto desert. (Otherwise Oppenheimer wouldn’t have been able to witness it change the world.) So did Little Boy and Fat Man, the bombs dropped on Japan in World War II. Those remain the only detonations of nuclear weapons in combat, and thus the nuclear explosions everyone knows, but they, too, represent only the beginning. As the Cold War sets in, something of a testing volley emerges between the United States and the Soviet Union, culminating in the colossal red dot of 1961’s Tsar Bomba, still the most powerful nuclear weapon ever tested. With the USSR long gone today, the explosions have only slowed. But in recent years, as the data on which this video is based indicates, nuclear testing has turned into a one-player game — and that player is North Korea.
The practice and privilege of academic science has been slow in trickling down from its origins as a pursuit of leisured gentleman. While many a leisured lady may have taken an interest in science, math, or philosophy, most women were denied participation in academic institutions and scholarly societies during the scientific revolution of the 1700s. Only a handful of women — seven known in total — were granted doctoral degrees before the year 1800. It wasn’t until 1678 that a female scholar was given the distinction, some four centuries or so after the doctorate came into being. While several intellectuals and even clerics of the time held progressive attitudes about gender and education, they were a decided minority.
Curiously, four of the first seven women to earn doctoral degrees were from Italy, beginning with Elena Cornaro Piscopia at the University of Padua. Next came Laura Bassi, who earned her degree from the University of Bologna in 1732. There she distinguished herself in physics, mathematics, and natural philosophy and became the first salaried woman to teach at a university (she was at one time the university’s highest paid employee). Bassi was the chief popularizer of Newtonian physics in Italy in the 18th century and enjoyed significant support from the Archbishop of Bologna, Prospero Lambertini, who — when he became Pope Benedict XIV — elected her as the 24th member of an elite scientific society called the Benedettini.
“Bassi was widely admired as an excellent experimenter and one of the best teachers of Newtonian physics of her generation,” says Paula Findlen, Stanford professor of history. “She inspired some of the most important male scientists of the next generation while also serving as a public example of a woman shaping the nature of knowledge in an era in which few women could imagine playing such a role.” She also played the role available to most women of the time as a mother of eight and wife of Giuseppe Veratti, also a scientist.
Bassi was not allowed to teach classes of men at the university — only special lectures open to the public. But in 1740, she was granted permission to lecture at her home, and her fame spread, as Findlen writes at Physics World:
Bassi was widely known throughout Europe, and as far away as America, as the woman who understood Newton. The institutional recognition that she received, however, made her the emblematic female scientist of her generation. A university graduate, salaried professor and academician (a member of a prestigious academy), Bassi may well have been the first woman to have embarked upon a full-fledged scientific career.
Poems were written about Bassi’s successes in demonstrating Newtonian optics; “news of her accomplishments traveled far and wide,” reaching the ear of Benjamin Franklin, whose work with electricity Bassi followed keenly. In Bologna, surprise at Bassi’s achievements was tempered by a culture known for “celebrating female success.” Indeed, the city was “jokingly known as a ‘paradise for women,’” writes Findlen. Bassi’s father was determined that she have an education equal to any of her class, and her family inherited money that had been equally divided between daughters and sons for generations; her sons “found themselves heirs to the property that came to the family through Laura’s maternal line,” notes the Stanford University collection of Bassi’s personal papers.
Bassi’s academic work is held at the Academy of Sciences in Bologna. Of the papers that survive, “thirteen are on physics, eleven are on hydraulics, two are on mathematics, one is on mechanics, one is on technology, and one is on chemistry,” writes a University of St. Andrew’s biography. In 1776, a year usually remembered for the formation of a government of leisured men across the Atlantic, Bassi was appointed to the Chair of Experimental Physics at Bologna, an appointment that not only meant her husband became her assistant, but also that she became the “first woman appointed to a chair of physics at any university in the world.”
Bologna was proud of its distinguished daughter, but perhaps still thought of her as an oddity and a token. As Dr. Eleonora Adami notes in a charming biography at sci-fi illustrated stories, the city once struck a medal in her honor, “commemorating her first lecture series with the phrase ‘Soli cui fas vidisse Minervam,’” which translates roughly to “the only one allowed to see Minerva.” But her example inspired other women, like Cristina Roccati, who earned a doctorate from Bologna in 1750, and Dorothea Erxleben, who became the first woman to earn a Doctorate in Medicine four years later at the University of Halle. Such singular successes did not change the patriarchal culture of academia, but they started the trickle that would in time become several branching streams of women succeeding in the sciences.
There’s an unmistakable element of coffee making as theater here… but also, a fascinating demonstration of physical principles in action.
Vintage vacuum pot collector Brian Harris breaks down how the balancing siphon works:
Two vessels are arranged side-by-side, with a siphon tube connecting the two.
Coffee is placed in one side (usually glass), and water in the other (usually ceramic).
A spirit lamp heats the water, forcing it through the tube and into the other vessel, where it mixes with the coffee.
As the water is transferred from one vessel to the other, a balancing system based on a counterweight or spring mechanism is activated by the change in weight. This in turn triggers the extinguishing of the lamp. A partial vacuum is formed, which siphons the brewed coffee through a filter and back into the first vessel, from which is dispensed by means of a spigot.
(Still curious? We direct you to Harris’ website for a lengthier, more eggheaded explanation, complete with equations, graphs, and calculations for saturated vapor pressure and the approximate temperature at which downward flow begins.)
If you do invest, be sure to up the coffee snobbery by telling your captive audience that you’ve named your new device “Gabet,” in honor of Parisian Louis Gabet, whose 1844 patent for a counterweight mechanism kicked off the balancing siphon craze.
Given the occasion, the choice of Clair de Lune, Debussy’s best loved piano work, feels practically de rigueur, but the trampoline comes as a bit of a shock.
We may not be able to see it, but it plays such an essential role, it’s tempting to call this solo a pas de deux. At the very least, the trampoline is an essential collaborator, along with pianist Alexandre Tharau and filmmaker Raphaël Wertheimer.
Bourgeois’ expressiveness as a performer has earned him comparisons to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. His choreography shows that he also shares their work ethic, attention to detail, and love of jawdropping visual stunts.
Don’t expect any random boinging around on this tramp’.
For four and a half minutes, Bourgeois’ everyman struggles to get to the top of a stark white staircase. Every time he falls off, the trampoline launches him back onto one of the steps — higher, lower, the very one he fell off of…
Interpret this struggle how you will.
Psyche, a digital magazine that “illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophical understanding and the arts” found it to be “an abstracted interpretation of a childlike experience of time.” One viewer wondered if the number of steps — twelve — was significant.
It’s no stretch to conceive of it as a comment on the nature of life — a constant cycle of falling down and bouncing back.
It’s lovely to behold because Bourgeois makes it look so easy.
In an interview with NR, he spoke of how his circus studies led to the realization that “the relationship between physical forces” is what he’s most interested in exploring. The stairs and trampoline, like all of his sets (or devices, as he prefers to call them), are there to “amplify specific physical phenomenon”:
In science, we’d call them models – they’re simplifications of our world that enable me to amplify one particular force at a time. Together, this ensemble of devices, this constellation of constructed devices, tentatively approaches the point of suspension. And so, this makes up a body of research; it’s a life’s research that doesn’t have an end in itself.
The relationship with physical forces has an eloquent capacity that can be very big; it has the kind of expression that is universal.
If you want to understand theoretical physics these days—as much as is possible without years of specialized study—there are no shortage of places to turn on the internet. Of course, this was not the case in the early 1960s when Richard Feynman gave his famous series of lectures at Caltech. In published form, these lectures became the most popular book on physics ever written. Feynman’s subsequent autobiographical essays and accessible public appearances further solidified his reputation as the foremost popular communicator of physics, “a fun-loving, charismatic practical joker,” writes Mette Ilene Holmnis at Quanta magazine, even if “his performative sexism looks very different to modern eyes.”
Feynman’s genius went beyond that of “ordinary geniuses,” his mentor, Hans Bethe, director of the Manhattan Project, exclaimed: “Feynman was a magician.” That may be so, but he was never above revealing how he learned his tricks, such that anyone could use his methods, whether or not they could achieve his spectacular results. Feynman didn’t only teach his students, and his millions of readers, about physics; he also taught them how to teach themselves. The so-called “Feynman technique” for effective studying ensures that students don’t just parrot knowledge, but that they can “identify any gaps” in their understanding, he emphasized, and bolster weak points where they “can’t explain an idea simply.”
Years before he became the foremost public communicator of science, Feynman performed the same service for his colleagues. “With physicists in the late 1940s struggling to reformulate a relativistic quantum theory describing the interactions of electrically charged particles,” Holmnis writes, “Feynman conjured up some Nobel Prize-winning magic. He introduced a visual method to simplify the seemingly impossible calculations needed to describe basic particle interactions.” The video above, animated by Holmnis, shows just how simple it was—just a few lines, squiggles, circles, and arrows.
Holmnis quotes Feynman biographer James Gleick’s description: Feynman “took the half-made conceptions of waves and particles in the 1940s and shaped them into tools that ordinary physicists could use and understand.” Feynman Diagrams helped make sense of quantum electrodynamics, a theory that “attempted to calculate the probability of all possible outcomes of particle interactions,” the video explains. Among the theory’s problems was the writing of “equations meant keeping track of all interactions, including virtual ones, a grueling, hopeless exercise for even the most organized and patient physicist.”
Using his touch for the relatable, Feynman drew his first diagrams in 1948. They remain, wrote Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek, “a treasured asset in physics because they often provide good approximations to reality. They help us bring our powers of visual imagination to bear on worlds we can’t actually see.” Learn more about Feynman Diagrams in the video above and at Holmnis’ article in Quantahere.
From the mid-19th century through WWI, these machines were at the forefront of gym culture. Their function is extremely similar to modern strength training equipment, but their design exudes a dashing steampunk flair.
If the thing that’s going to help us work off all this sourdough weight is going to wind up colonizing half our apartment, we want something that will go with our maximalist thrift store aesthetic.
We might even start working out in floor length skirts and three piece suits in homage to Zander’s original devotees.
His 27 machines addressed abs, arms, adductors—all the greatest hits—using weights and levers to strengthen muscles through progressive exertion and resistance. Specially trained assistants were on hand to adjust the weights, a luxury that our modern world has seen fit to phase out.
Just as 21st-century fitness centers position themselves as lifesavers of those who spend the bulk of the day hunched in front of a computer, Zander’s inventions targeted sedentary office workers.
The industrial society that created this new breed of laborer also ensured that the Swedish doctor’s contraptions would garner accolades and attention. They were already a hit in their land of origin when they took a gold medal at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition.
The flagship Therapeutic Zander Institute in Stockholm expanded, with branches in London and New York City.
The New York Times described the latter as giving the “uninitiated observer an impression of a carefully devised torture chamber more than of a doctor’s office or a gymnasium, both of which functions the institute, to a certain degree, fills.”
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. This month, she appearsas a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse. Follow her @AyunHalliday.
Get the best cultural and educational resources on the web curated for you in a daily email. We never spam. Unsubscribe at any time.
FOLLOW ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Open Culture scours the web for the best educational media. We find the free courses and audio books you need, the language lessons & educational videos you want, and plenty of enlightenment in between.
Open Culture (openculture.com) and our trusted partners use technology such as cookies on our website to personalise ads, support social media features, and analyze our traffic. Please click below to consent to the use of this technology while browsing our site.
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.