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The Character of Physical Law (1965)

by Richard Feynman

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,3931410,734 (4.1)25
Like any set of oral reflections, The Character of Physical Law has special value as a demonstration of the mind in action. The reader is particularly lucky in Richard Feynman - one of the most eminent and imaginative modern physicists. In these Messenger Lectures, originally delivered at Cornell University and recorded for television by the BBC, Richard Feynman offers an overview of selected physical laws and gathers their common features into one broad principle of invariance. He maintains at the outset that the importance of a physical law is not ''how clever we are to have found it out - but . . . how clever nature is to pay attention to it'' and steers his discussions toward a final exposition of the elegance and simplicity of all scientific laws. Rather than an essay on the most significant achievements in modern science, The Character of Physical Law is a statement of what is most remarkable in nature. Feynman's enlightened approach, his wit, and his enthusiasm make this a memorable exposition of the scientist's craft. The law of gravitation is the author's principal example. Relating the details of its discovery and stressing its mathematical character, he uses it to demonstrate the essential interaction of mathematics and physics. He views mathematics as the key to any system of scientific laws, suggesting that if it were possible to fill out the structure of scientific theory completely, the result would be an integrated set of mathematical axioms. The principles of conservation, symmetry, and time irreversibility are then considered in relation to developments in classical and modern physics, and in his final lecture, Feynman develops his own analysis of the process and future of scientific discovery.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
"The Character of Physical Law" by Richard Feynman is an excellent explanation of how Physics works and what it does. It is told simply enough that anyone who did well in high school can understand 95% of it. Feynman has a great talent for making things as simple as possible. He uses a few well-chosen concrete examples to demonstrate more general principles (such as conservation), illustrate methods of making discoveries, and show how Physics is related to Mathematics.

Recommended for anyone with the slightest interest in Physics and should be read by every intelligent person who believes science is a collection of facts, rather than a process of making ever better guesses about nature.

Feynman shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics. ( )
  KENNERLYDAN | Jul 11, 2021 |
How delightful is Nature for Feynman and his peers. This glimpse on the Physicist method (more than the actual explanations of some laws) is a great takeaway. I already feel the approach, both in technic and in philosophy, can be applied to any kind of intellectual work.

This book is a transcript, hence it is sometimes hard to process. The videos can be seen online, that’s a great experience overall. Also it makes reading with Feynman accent in mind mandatory from now on :) ( )
  jbrieu | Nov 6, 2020 |
This is a fantastic little book for which we have to thank the BBC: They decided to film these lectures and subsequently publish transcripts of them, at a time before Feynman had turned into a one-man industry and every one of Feynman`s students`first-draft lecture notes became as diamond dust.

The title tells one enough about the contents; if you have any interest in the topic you should read this book. It is almost but not completely non-mathematical. If you can cope with the algebra contained within F=GMm/R - well, that's as hard as it gets.

The aspect of the book that particularly interested me this time around is in Chapter two (and reprised somewhat in the final lecture). Feynman takes the above given equation, which expresses Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation and says - that's all very well, but you can express it in another way that's to do with how something called a potential varies locally - and if you do it will always give exactly the same answer! And, not content with that, you can express it another way that is to do with finding the minimum of a certain thing called the Action. (Technically it doesn't have to be a minimum, just somewhere where the tangent to the graph of the Action would be horizontal.) Done this way, the answers always come out the same as the other two ways! What's the point of that? Three ways to say the same thing!

But here's the interesting, indeed profound thing: when it came to understanding quantum mechanics (which doesn't deal with gravity) it was found that both potentials and a principle of minimum (stationary, strictly) Action were needed. So the different ways of expressing Newton's gravity law turned out profoundly useful in understanding a different set of phenomena, namely the nuclear forces and electromagnetism.

So if you are involved in trying to understand fundamental physics it would probably be healthy to actively search for different mathematical methods of expressing the laws as we understand them now!

Incidently, I doubt you will ever come across a more accessible introduction to the essential mystery of quantum mechanics (the photon/electron double slit experiment) than that given in this lecture, in which Feynman gave his famous quote, "...I think I can safely say nobody understands quantum mechanics." ( )
  Arbieroo | Jul 17, 2020 |
- Simple, which is good
- Fundamental, which is great
- Entertaining, who doesn't like that?

A casual stroll past the vast edifices of simple physical laws, a few views of strange ideas that haven't been accepted but interesting all the same, and terminating at his - Richard's - favourite 'twin split' experiment that we all remember from our school days.

This is a great little book. More, such an approach - clearly stating background ideas and how they were arrived at, concluding at the vanguard - could and should be applied to more topics. ( )
  GirlMeetsTractor | Mar 22, 2020 |
Very nice way of introducing how physics work and physicists think. Feynman makes it a fun ride filled with witty jokes and awesome experiments, methods and metaphors to explain this beautiful subject. He mainly sticks to the character of the laws - their essence - rather than the laws themselves.

PS. I saw the original lectures which were recorded on tape by BBC. ( )
  romesh6626 | Mar 1, 2020 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Richard Feynmanprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bosch, AntoniTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Davies, PaulIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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It is odd, but on the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics.
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Like any set of oral reflections, The Character of Physical Law has special value as a demonstration of the mind in action. The reader is particularly lucky in Richard Feynman - one of the most eminent and imaginative modern physicists. In these Messenger Lectures, originally delivered at Cornell University and recorded for television by the BBC, Richard Feynman offers an overview of selected physical laws and gathers their common features into one broad principle of invariance. He maintains at the outset that the importance of a physical law is not ''how clever we are to have found it out - but . . . how clever nature is to pay attention to it'' and steers his discussions toward a final exposition of the elegance and simplicity of all scientific laws. Rather than an essay on the most significant achievements in modern science, The Character of Physical Law is a statement of what is most remarkable in nature. Feynman's enlightened approach, his wit, and his enthusiasm make this a memorable exposition of the scientist's craft. The law of gravitation is the author's principal example. Relating the details of its discovery and stressing its mathematical character, he uses it to demonstrate the essential interaction of mathematics and physics. He views mathematics as the key to any system of scientific laws, suggesting that if it were possible to fill out the structure of scientific theory completely, the result would be an integrated set of mathematical axioms. The principles of conservation, symmetry, and time irreversibility are then considered in relation to developments in classical and modern physics, and in his final lecture, Feynman develops his own analysis of the process and future of scientific discovery.

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In questo ciclo di conferenze, il premio Nobel Richard Feynman, parlando a braccio sulla scorta di poche note, racconta a studenti di varia provenienza, con scarse conoscenze matematiche, in che cosa consiste il lavoro del fisico teorico. 
Il suo intento non è però di divulgare i contenuti della fisica (ché, tanto, senza equazioni nessuno «potrà mai far capire la natura a “quelli dell’altra cultura”») ma di mostrare il modo in cui essa procede e di rendere in qualche misura consapevoli anche i profani del valore intellettuale dell’impresa. E lo fa col suo stile immediato e antiretorico, senza vaghe affermazioni qualitative, sulla base di esempi concreti tratti dalla fisica di ieri e di oggi, analizzati quanto basta per mettere in luce l’essenza del metodo. Al lettore più esperto non sfuggiranno le osservazioni sottili, 
le intuizioni profonde di cui questo libretto, come ogni scritto di Feynman, è ricco: dalla dimostrazione einsteiniana della località delle leggi di conservazione all’analisi del significato della termodinamica, alle considerazioni finali sul futuro della fisica.
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Penguin Australia

An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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