The Feynman Lecture Series

 The Character of Physical Law

March 1, 2005

As a celebration of things that are universal in our university, we present the original seven Feynman lectures on The Character of Physical Law. The lectures were given as part of the Messenger Lecture Series at Cornell University in November of 1964, when Richard Feynman was Professor of Theoretical Physics at Cal Tech. They were originally recorded on 16 mm film by the BBC.

"Feynman's 'popularization' over the years through mainstream media (e.g. books like Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman) has made him well-known outside the physics community," says ECE Professor Jim Hoburg, who is hosting the program for the second year in a row. "But in my view, it's when Feynman talks about physics that his genius and passion for truth, which extend far beyond physics, are most apparent."

This year's talks are again sponsored by the office of the vice provost for education and will include some younger faces: high school physics teachers from throughout the Pittsburgh area have been invited to attend with small groups of their best students.

"We're running the series again because it was hugely successful last year," Hoburg reports. "The first week we overflowed the Adamson lecture hall, which prompted us to move the rest of the series to Doherty Hall (DH) 2315 (this year DH 2210), and it was mostly filled, with people from all across the university."

Lecture 1: The Law of Gravitation

Tuesday, March 1, 4:30 – 6:00 p.m., DH 2210

Professor Feynman describes the history of the law of gravity, the method and character of its discovery, its range of application, and its limitations.

Lecture 2: The Relation of Mathematics to Physics

Tuesday, March 15, 4:30 – 6:00 p.m., DH 2210

Professor Feynman presents examples of how the logic of mathematics helps us describe nature and use models to formulate laws. He emphasizes the contrasts between physical laws and mathematical theorems.

Lecture 3: The Great Conservation Principles

Tuesday, March 22, 4:30 – 6:00 p.m., DH 2210

Professor Feynman describes the properties of a physical law that make it a conservation law. He discusses the conservation of charge, energy, and momentum and their range of validity. He also considers the importance of conservation laws in extending our understanding of a complicated phenomenon and in developing new laws.

Lecture 4: Symmetry in Physical Law

Tuesday, March 29, 4:30 – 6:00 p.m., DH 2210

This lecture covers symmetries of physical phenomena. Topics include translations in space and time, rotations in space, the right- and left-handedness of fundamental interactions and living things, the consequence of relative motion, and the interconnections of space and time.

Lecture 5: The Distinction of Past and Future

Tuesday, April 5, 4:30 – 6:00 p.m., DH 2210

This lecture compares the irreversible phenomena of nature. Professor Feynman uses numerous models to describe these processes and develops analogies of temperature and entropy. He also briefly describes the interconnections among various scientific and philosophic ideas.

Lecture 6: Probability & Uncertainty - The Quantum Mechanical View of Nature

Tuesday, April 12, 4:30 – 6:00 p.m., DH 2210

Professor Feynman considers the behavior of electrons and photons according to the theories of quantum mechanics. He also discusses single and double slit experiments.

Lecture 7: Seeking New Laws

Tuesday, April 19, 4:30 – 6:00 p.m., DH 2210

Professor Feynman summarizes the state of our knowledge of the physical world, probes some existing mysteries, and discusses a useful method for seeking new laws — the art of guessing. He uses the development and analysis of currently accepted laws as examples of how this art works.

About Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman lived from 1918 to 1988 and won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965. His ideas extended far beyond the technical content of physics. He had a unique ability to convey the excitement and universality of science and the human search for knowledge — part of what is so appealing in the original lectures is that their content extends across all disciplines. Here are some of his thoughts on science and mathematics:

Quotable Quotes

"During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas — which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn't work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact, that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked — or very little of it did.

But even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFO's, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I've concluded that it's not a scientific world."

"I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy."

"...To summarize, I would use the words of Jeans, who said that "the Great Architect seems to be a mathematician." To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature. C.P. Snow talked about two cultures. I really think that those two cultures separate people who have and people who have not had this experience of understanding mathematics well enough to appreciate nature once.

It is too bad that it has to be mathematics, and that mathematics is hard for some people. It is reputed — I do not know if it is true — that when one of the kings was trying to learn geometry from Euclid he complained that it was difficult. And Euclid said, "There is no royal road to geometry." And there is no royal road. Physicists cannot make a conversion to any other language. If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in. She offers her information only in one form; we are not so unhumble as to demand that she change before we pay any attention.

All the intellectual arguments that you can make will not communicate to deaf ears what the experience of music really is. In the same way all the intellectual arguments in the world will not convey an understanding of nature to those of "the other culture." Philosophers may try to teach you by telling you qualitatively about nature. I am trying to describe her. But it is not getting across because it is impossible. Perhaps it is because their horizons are limited in the way that some people are able to imagine that the center of the universe is man..."

Professor Richard Feynman

Professor Jim Hoburg

Professor Feynman lecturing. Photo courtesy of the American Institute of Physics.