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Feynman's Messenger Lectures

Richard Feynman giving the first of his Cornell Messenger Lectures, The Law of Gravitation: an example of physical law, November 9, 1964.

About Feynman's Messenger Lectures

In 1963 Richard Feynman was invited to give the 1964 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University, an annual tradition since 1924, when Hiram Messenger gifted Cornell with "a fund to provide a course of lectures on the Evolution of Civilization for the special purpose of raising the moral standard of our political, business, and social life", to be "delivered by the ablest non-resident lecturer or lecturers obtainable".

Feynman had been a physics professor at Cornell from 1945 to 1950, during which time he did the work for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1965. While at Cornell Feynman became well-known in the physics community for his innovations in quantum electrodynamics and idosyncratic style. He was at Caltech in 1963, when he was invited to become the 41st Messenger Lecturer1, by which time he had become known to a much wider audience through his recently published book, Volume I of The Feynman Lectures on Physics.2

According to the Cornell Faculty Website, "A Messenger Lecturer typically gives three lectures/presentations over the course of a one-week visit. At least one of these must be a lecture that is suitable for a general audience."3 Feynman, however, chose to give a series of six lectures, all for a general audience, which he titled The Character of Physical Law.4 He had plenty of material to draw from his recently completed introductory physics course, the basis of The Feynman Lectures on Physics. For this reason one finds many similarities, parallels, and even identical parts in the lectures of The Character of Physical Law and several of the lectures in The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

Feynman's Messenger Lectures were videotaped by the BBC, who in 1965 published a hardbound book of edited lecture transcripts under the title, The Character of Physical Law. In 1967 the paperback rights were licensed to MIT Press who continues to print the book today.5 The videotapes were transferred to film, and in the late 1960s through the '70s copies of the films were in wide distribution at colleges and universities.6 Sadly, however, these wonderful films of Feynman lecturing at the peak of his prowess went out of distribution and became generally unavailable in the 1980s.

In 2009, when Microsoft Research introduced their Silverlight framework for media-rich web applications, Bill Gates licensed rights to stream the BBC's films of Feynman’s Messenger Lectures online. Hoping to encourage others to make educational content available for free, he used them in the first Silverlight demo, “Project Tuva.”7 The publication of Feynman’s Messenger Lectures for free online viewing, with special features such as searchable synchronized scrolling transcripts, links to related online material, and commentary, was an instant hit with Feynman fans, students and physicists. The Silverlight framework, however, was not widely adopted, and in 2016 Project Tuva was retired. The videos were still available for viewing on the Microsoft Research Website (though without the special features) until 2021, when their BBC license expired. The license has since been generously renewed by Bill Gates so that the videos can continue to be shown online to users of The Feynman Lectures Website.

The Feynman Messenger Lectures Video Viewer

Clicking on a lecture title above will open The Feynman Messenger Lectures Video Viewer, an application based on the Microsoft Azure Media Player for displaying the films of Feynman's lecture series The Character of Physical Law in high definition video8 with a searchable interactive auto-scrolling transcript. The Viewer allows one to resize the video/transcript areas (even during play), and has a simple tabbed user interface. For detailed instructions on using the Viewer please refer to its "Help" tab after opening the application with the links above.

  1. Caltech founder R. A. Millikan was the 2nd Messenger Lecturer in 1925. Other Messenger Lecturers from Caltech include T.H. Morgan (1930), Theodore Van Karman (1952), and Linus Pauling (1959).
  2. The second volume was to follow in 1964, and the third in 1965.
  3. See https://theuniversityfaculty.cornell.edu/dean/messengeruniversity-lectures/.
  4. Later he added a seventh lecture, "The Distinction of Past and Future."
  5. The transcripts shown in The Feynman Messenger Lectures Video Viewer are derived from subtitles, and are more literal (less edited) than the transcripts that appear in the book.
  6. Bill Gates was one of the lucky students at Harvard who saw the films of Feynman's Messenger Lectures, about which he reminisces in this video, presented at Caltech on May 11, 2018 for "Feynman 100," a celebration of Richard Feynman’s life & legacy on the occasion of his 100th birthday.
  7. See the Wikipedia Article about Project Tuva.
  8. Resolutions supported include 180p, 360p, 540p, 720p, 1080p (Full HD), at bitrates ranging from 400K to 6M bps.