By Rob Knies
April 19, 2011 9:00 AM PT
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, has 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.
In April 2011, 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, who first met Feynman early in his academic career, recently took a few minutes to discuss their interactions and his experience of adding comments to Project Tuva:
Q: How did you become acquainted with Feynman?
Jaffe: 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.
I did a study comparing two different approaches to understanding the Stanford experiments, one that Feynman had been advocating and another that had been advocated by his Caltech colleague, Murray Gell-Mann. My adviser suggested I go down to Caltech to give a seminar about my work and see how Dick and Murray reacted. It was the first seminar I gave outside of Stanford.
Feynman was in the audience, and he was enthusiastic about my work. An animated discussion with Gell-Mann followed. Feynman joined in defending my work, and eventually we held the day. This started our relationship off on a good footing.
The most intense interaction I had with Feynman came several years later. I was involved at MIT in developing a model of how quarks make up protons and neutrons. It was called the MIT Bag Model. The summer after I did that work, I went to the Aspen Center for Physics in Aspen, Colo., for a month. Dick was also spending part of the summer there, and I had an office just down the hall from his.
We realized that we were studying the same question: How could the Stanford experiments be explained by the MIT model? Dick encouraged me to talk with him. We worked at the blackboard, often starting with some idea he had cooked up overnight. Dick was especially insistent on translating my more mathematical formulation into his parton language and helped me get the physics straight.
After that summer, when he would come to MIT occasionally to give seminars or colloquia, Dick would have lunch with us theorists, and interesting physics discussions would usually ensue. Similarly, when I went to Caltech to give talks, Dick and I would talk about quarks and partons and the way that they interact.
My relationship with Feynman was not unusual—I was of a younger generation, and many of my friends interacted with him much as I did. In fact, that was one of the wonderful things about Feynman: He encouraged young people to talk with him, and he listened to what they had to say very attentively.
Q: How would you describe the Messenger Lectures, and what keeps them relevant today?
Jaffe: The most important thing about the Messenger Lectures is that they capture Feynman at the height of his interest in teaching physics. He seems to have gone through a period in the late 1950s through the middle 1960s when he became fascinated with teaching. In the early ’60s, he developed his famous physics course at Caltech, and shortly after that, he gave these Messenger Lectures.
It’s clear that he was thinking about how to explain physics to younger people, people with less background knowledge—or even to the general public. He was trying very hard to make himself understood, and he was using all his powers of exposition, his ability to make contact with people, his showmanship, his stagecraft, his timing … Dick had all the characteristics of a great improviser, a stand-up comedian, a performer. It really comes out in these lectures. That makes it possible for people who otherwise would not pay attention to physics to go along with him for the ride.
It’s not that his explanations are all that original—or even that penetrating. Some of his insights are extraordinary, but others are just good, solid pedagogy. It’s Dick’s incredible personal ability as a communicator that makes these lectures special.
Q: What was your impression of Project Tuva when you first encountered it?
Jaffe: I thought that mounting the lectures so everyone could watch them on a flexible platform on a public website was an excellent idea. It immediately occurred to me that there was an opportunity to use the Silverlight platform to add much more to the viewer’s experience of the website—something that had not yet been taken advantage of.
That’s what got me interested—the possibility that someone could act much like a curator in a museum who guides a visitor through an exhibit in a way that adds value. Like the experience of a museum, the Silverlight platform offers the viewer a choice of how deeply to explore. At the museum, you can listen to the audio tape or not, or you can read the captions under the images or not. You can take as much away as you wish.
The way the Silverlight software had been designed offered that capability: the ability to stop and linger over a thought or to rush through it to the next thing.
Q: How did you get involved with the project?
Jaffe: It started with a personal friendship. I’ve been friends with Tony Hey [Microsoft corporate vice president of Microsoft Research Connections] since we were graduate students. Our families are friends, but we didn’t see one another all that often because we were on opposite sides of the Atlantic. When Tony became a vice president at Microsoft Research, we began to interact more regularly, especially when he visited Boston.
Tony asked me whether I was interested in doing a commentary, adding some remarks to the site. I think Tony expected I would add some offhand remarks: a sentence here, an equation there. But when I looked at the Tuva site more closely, I felt it deserved more than that. I proposed to Tony that I would attempt to “curate” the viewer’s experience of the site. We corresponded back and forth a few times by email and agreed that I would do one of the lectures the way I thought it ought to be done, and if he thought it was a good model, that I would go ahead and do the rest. I started with Lecture 2 and sent off the curation. Tony liked it, and the project was born. Simple.
Q: Did your commentary accomplish what you set out to achieve?
Jaffe: Yes, I think so. My objective was to provide a richer experience for the person who goes to the site, in several directions. First of all, I wanted to bring the lectures up to date. Physics has moved on over the last 45 years, and several of the things that Feynman thought were puzzles have been resolved. Others that Feynman thought might be fairly well understood have turned out to be puzzling. Basically, I wanted to provide a modern context from which to view the lectures.
Some of the concepts that Feynman was forced to go through rather quickly, I found, were worth elaboration. For me, it was like an exercise in variations on a theme. There were places where Feynman would hum a few bars, and I would try to put them in a broader context, add the kind of things I think Feynman would have added had he had the time. In other places, I have to confess, I used Dick’s remarks to segue into a topic of my own. In all, I hope I brought the lectures up to date and provided people who are interested in them a more extended invitation to think further about the subject.
Q: Are there any portions of this work you found personally memorable?
Jaffe: 1964 was a watershed year in modern fundamental physics, as it turned out. There was an experiment done to show that a symmetry we call CP symmetry was violated, and those results were just available when Feynman was giving the lectures. The Cosmic Background Radiation left over from the big bang was first discovered. And the theory of quarks was just being formulated by Dick’s colleagues Gell-Mann and George Zweig at the time. There are the slightest hints in his lectures that Dick knew about these things—he certainly did—and he either refers to them obliquely, or he pauses pregnantly but doesn’t say anything. You can see him struggling with the physics that was happening at the very instant that he was giving the lectures. For me, that was the most fun: trying to figure out what was going on in his head and trying to explain to a viewer what was going on in the world around Feynman while he was talking.
Q: What was it like working with Microsoft Research to make this all come to fruition?
Jaffe: Working with Tony was delightful—it rekindled an old friendship. Tony’s very flexible, and he likes to think out of the box. He welcomed my interest in going the extra yard in this project, so that was great.
The people that I dealt with at Microsoft—Donald Brinkman, Curtis Wong, and Michael Adcock—are terrific. They share the kind of enthusiasm for Feynman that I do. We could all sit back and appreciate our appreciation for him.
Q: What does success for this project look like? How will you know if you’ve made the impact you wanted to make?
Jaffe: Obviously, the best measure of success is the extent to which the curation that I produced is viewed and used by people. I imagine some young, aspiring scientist in a third-world country who encounters the Tuva site and then has the pleasure of discovering the commentary on the lectures and being led into a fascination with the questions that Feynman’s talking about—conservation laws, the nature of time, the symmetries of nature. To think that these lectures might actually capture the imagination of a young person and bring him or her into the field of science—that would by far be the most satisfying thing for me.
How I would learn about that, I don’t quite know. Maybe the occasional student from out of left field will send me an email saying: “I read these lectures. Isn’t that great?” I would look forward to that.
Q: What has been the best part of working on this project?
Jaffe: For me, the best part 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.