Feynman's Character of Physical Law Lectures

By Sean Carroll | July 16, 2009 1:12 pm

Everyone and their niece is emailing me that I should post these. (And Aatish in comments.) And a good thing, too, because it usually takes at least half a dozen emails before I will do anything at all.

In 1964, Richard Feynman gave the Messenger Lectures at Cornell, aimed at a general audience. They were later collected into The Character of Physical Law, a great little book with a depressingly boring cover. Feynman-worship is often overdone, but man, the guy could lecture. And he knew a lot about physics!

The good news is that Bill Gates has now put the full video of the lectures online, as part of Project Tuva. I had to update some software to view them on my Mac, but it seems to be working now.

Feynman Lecturing

Lecture Five is about the arrow of time. If you skip ahead to the 18th minute or so, you’ll hear Feynman explain the Boltzmann Brain argument.

  • http://www.twitter.com/tom_fishman Tom_Fishman

    Love that Far Rockaway twang.

  • Drm

    Things were a little different in 1964. I don’t suppose introducing someone with excerpts from his University personnel file would go over too well these days. Although its clear that the Feynman legend was already fully formed by then.

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  • Michael T.

    Thanks for the post on the Feynman lectures and many kudos to Bill Gates for making this available to everyone.

    I did watch lecture 5 and couldn’t help but thinking about your earlier posts on the incompatibility between science and religion. He contrasted the notions of the “fundamental laws” and “beauty and hope” and raised the question of which one is nearer to god. His answer of course was neither and no deep understanding of the world could be achieved by standing solely at either end.

    “It is not sensible either for the ones that specialize at one end and the ones who specialize at the other end, to have such disregard for one another.”

    Great stuff, thanks again

  • http://scienceontap.blogspot.com Arj

    All Feynman groupies should realize there’s LOTS of Feynman on the Web: plenty of YouTube clips and video.google clips, more video at: http://vega.org.uk/video/subseries/8, and some other sites as well.
    One or more of the hour-long shows NOVA did on him may also be online in their entirety.

  • fml

    I’ve really appreciated the lectures you’ve been posting recently. In particular, the relativity series was quite nice and helped me find the rest of the “Stanford on Itunes” series. A 2-semester quantum course focusing on entanglement has been especially interesting.

    Unfortunately, I’m in a sub-par program without access to a good introduction to QFT aside from self-study. Sydney Coleman’s lectures seem likely to be dated, and the video quality is also very poor. There seem to be no QFT lectures online through MIT’s opencourseware, Itunes, or other locations. So, if I could ask both Sean and readers interested in chiming in – are there any good QFT resources online, and in particular, videos of course lectures?

  • onymous

    What an accent!

    And it’s funny how the whole audience seems to titter at the use of the word “screwy” in the quantum mechanics lecture. Things really were different back then.

  • http://www.shaky.com Timon of Athens

    ” Feynman-worship is often overdone”

    You know, on the internet you read a lot of very strange things. There was this story going around that the Pope might actually be a Catholic. And then there was that weird rumor about bears shitting in the woods.

  • tds3

    Anyone know the secret to using Tuva on the Mac (with Firefox)?

    P.S. I really like the 15 minute delay for the comments. This will undoubtedly save me from making too much of a fool out of my internet self.

  • Michael T.

    You know Gents, it’s not at all about “groupies” or “worshiping” a bit. You totally miss the point and the magic of Richard Feynman. He was a showman at his core and a really great and fantastically insightful teacher, scientist, genius, human being. Just celebrate that and if there is an opportunity for him to reach a wider audience then a wonderful thing it is. He balanced art and science in a most masterful way.

  • Chip Neville

    Sorry guys, but the required Silverlight plugin for Linux, called Moonlight, does not work for Ubuntu. I keep getting a “Silverlight is not officially supported for your browser” message, even though I have downloaded and installed the official Moonlight plugin for Firefox. Bill Gates should be praised for making the videos available, but I fear my most recent experience is typical of my experiences with Microsoft.

  • .

    It’s linux, media isn’t meant to work on it.

  • http://athene.org.in/girish Girish Kulkarni

    Unfortunately, Bill Gates will let you view the lectures only if you use his software.

  • Magnus

    Ubuntu seems to be supported as far as I can see.


    I’m unable to run the lectures in Fedora, but as far as I can tell my problem is Firefox 3.5.

  • http://tristram.squarespace.com Tristram Brelstaff

    Chip Neville wrote:

    “I keep getting a “Silverlight is not officially supported for your browser” message, even though I have downloaded and installed the official Moonlight plugin for Firefox.”

    Have you tried user agent spoofing (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User_agent#User_agent_spoofing )?

  • Big Vlad

    Unfortunately I also cannot watch the lectures as I’m using linux/firefox. Perhaps some Robin Hood will stick the lectures on YouTube…

  • zhaphod

    ” Feynman-worship is often overdone”,

    I dont agree. In this era of OctoMoms, 17 day non stop coverage of Michael Jackson’s death and funeral, Sarah Palin, and so on, the more we worship Feynman that better it is.

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  • michael york

    After 45 years of physicists guessing round the clock, the obvious guess still, to my
    knowledge has not been proposed. A force which is at some distance, in which the entirety
    of the universe is contained, having absolute density, should be able to be quantized by
    the inverse square law and constitute the force necessary at that distance to supply the
    energy to impell all matter in the manner in which we observe it to behave. Furthermore
    I would guess that there was not one singular Big Bang but instead a symmetrical colllection
    of Big Bangs, which happened simultaneously, producing all the material which since that instant, have been on a path towards that distant all compelling force.The Dark Matter, so
    called, is that force which is produced by that absolutely dense all encircling energy field,
    which pervades, and has always pervaded the void, and impells all matter uniformly.

  • Jimbo

    Feynman could’ve laid claim to being one of the most open-minded scientists in the world, and he would’ve loved vixra:
    arxiv spelled backwards ! Physics World has a story about it as well: http://physicsworld.com/blog/2009/07/what_is_arxiv_backwards.html
    They hope to break the monopoly on scientific communications that the arxiv has imposed upon everyone, in more & more draconian ways. I urge everyone to take a peek, & imagine a world where they could only buy a car from GM ? Really sux, right ? Now, you have an alternative.

  • Brian

    Yeah Jimbo, tell us that Feynman would have liked to be put in the same bag as a whack of pseudoscientists. Nice call.


  • http://www.whyevolutionistrue.com Jerry Coyne

    Damn! I installed Silverlight, but when I click on the Tuva Project using either Firefox or Navigator I just get the “install application” page again. Can anyone tell me how I can get to the lectures?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    On my Mac I just had to restart Firefox. I think it’s just persistence, not a trick.

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  • Big Vlad

    no amount of firefox restarts are working for me.I’ve installed the linux equivalent of Silverlight. Has anyone got it working with firefox on linux? And if so, which version of firefox?

    Thanks for this, microsoft…

  • michael york

    Strange that remarks all center around either opinions about this mans’ perceived
    level of reputation, or people who don’t like windows, or microsoft complaining about
    compatability problems instead of physics? I suppose I need not attempt any further
    interaction. Too bad, it would seem like an interesting forum for online discussion.

  • Big Vlad

    Michael York: is that what you call a comment about physics?

  • michael york

    My previous comment is what I call exaspeation over the lack of comment about physics!
    I posted a theory of mine which attempts to explain the force behind gravity. Gravity is
    a weak force because of the immense distance from which it is propogated from outside
    the universe, which must be of absolute density, and acting on the entire contents of the
    universe, in a way which is not directly detectable. I would suppose the mathematicians
    would be able to quantify, what the density of that energy would have to be, in order to
    generate the gravitational field which causes curvinlinear forces on matter.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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