Feynman’s 'The Character of Physical Law' now with added commentary

  • Posted on: 19 April 2011
  • By: ashok

In July 2009, Microsoft Research released Project Tuva, based on the famed Messenger Lectures presented at Cornell University in 1964 by the late Richard Feynman, an American physicist and California Institute of Technology (Caltech) professor who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics. Bill Gates, Microsoft chairman, made the lectures freely available to the public to encourage people to learn about science via a Silverlight-enhanced video player that presents the original, BBC-recorded videos of the seven physics lectures. The videos are searchable and include linked transcripts, notes, and interactive extras, originally including academic commentary on the first of the lectures.

Now commentary on all seven lectures has been added by Robert Jaffe, Jane and Otto Morningstar Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Jaffe first met Feynman early in his academic career.

I was a student at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in the late 1960s, a time when a revolution was taking place in particle physics. This was long after Feynman did his most important work, but he refocused his interests on particle physics when new experiments at Stanford seemed to show there were point-like objects inside protons and neutrons. Feynman and Jim Bjorken, a Stanford physicist, developed an explanation of those experiments that Dick called the parton model. Dick came up to Stanford quite frequently to talk with both theorists and experimenters there. As a graduate student, I sat in on some of those discussions, went to Dick’s seminars, and got to appreciate his intelligence and his style.
For me, the best part of working on this project was the chance to observe a master teacher in microscopic detail as he plied his trade. I’ve listened to Feynman’s lectures casually, but to listen to them with the intention of annotating them forced me to pay attention to his use of theater, of tone, of voice and accent, of his physical presence, of jokes, of interacting with his audience. I found that fascinating. Feynman had an uncanny ability to make individual contact with the people he’d lecture to, to make you feel like you and he have a secret deal that’s not really shared with anybody else, that even though there may be a room full of people, you and he are going to go on some voyage of discovery, that you and he together are cleverer than anybody else, and the joke is on them. I found watching Dick’s performance to be inspiring. Anybody who wants to learn how to teach physics should watch these Feynman lectures.