Feynman And His Mulitfaceted Communication Skills

I wrote a while ago on a project (codenamed Tuva) carried out at Microsoft Research to reproduce the famous Messenger Lectures on ‘The Character of Physical Law’ by Richard Feynman. The resulting online presentation looks pretty slick and fast (on my new iMac) and makes use of and highlights their Silverlight technology.

Recently they’ve added some very enlightening commentary material by Robert Jaffe (Professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) that places the lectures (given in 1964) in an up-to-date context.

There’s also an interesting interview with Jaffe explaining the background to his contribution. Two extracts that interested me were:

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.


For me, the best part (of working on the project) 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.

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