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Seven videotaped lectures from 1964 by Richard Feynman given in Cornell, on “The Character of Physical Law“, have recently been put online (by Microsoft Research, through the purchase of these lectures from the Feynman estate by Bill Gates, as described in this interview with Gates), with a number of multimedia enhancements (external links, subtitles, etc.). These lectures, intended for a general audience, broadly cover the same type of material that is in his famous lectures on physics.
I have just finished the first lecture, describing the history and impact of the law of gravitation as a model example of a physical law; I had of course known of Feynman’s reputation as an outstandingly clear, passionate, and entertaining lecturer, but it is quite something else to see that lecturing style directly. The lectures are each about an hour long, but I recommend setting aside the time to view at least one of them, both for the substance of the lecture and for the presentation. His introduction to the first lecture is surprisingly poetic:
The artists of the Renaissance said that man’s main concern should be for man.
And yet, there are some other things of interest in this world: even the artist appreciates sunsets, and ocean waves, and the march of the stars across the heavens.
And there is some reason, then, to talk of other things sometimes.
As we look into these things, we get an aesthetic pleasure directly on observation, but there’s also a rhythm and pattern between the phenomena of nature, which isn’t apparent to the eye, but only to the eye of analysis.
And it’s these rhythms and patterns that we call physical laws.
What I want to talk about in this series of lectures is the general characteristics of these physical laws. …
The talk then shifts to the very concrete and specific topic of gravitation, though, as can be seen in this portion of the video:
Coincidentally, I covered some of the material in Feynman’s first lecture in my own talk on the cosmic distance ladder, though I was approaching the topic from a rather different angle, and with a less elegant presentation.
[Via the New York Times. Note that some browsers may need a Silverlight extension in order to view the videos. Youtube versions of three of the seven lectures are available here. Another, much more recent, series of videotaped lectures of Feynman is available here.]
[Update, July 15: Of particular interest to mathematicians is his second lecture “The relation of mathematics and physics”. He draws several important contrasts between the reasoning of physics and the axiomatic reasoning of formal, settled mathematics, of the type found in textbooks; but it is quite striking to me that the reasoning of unsettled mathematics – recent fields in which the precise axioms and theoretical framework has not yet been fully formalised and standardised – matches Feynman’s description of physical reasoning in many ways. I suspect that Feynman’s impressions of mathematics as performed by mathematicians in 1964 may differ a little from the way mathematics is performed today.]