A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication

Gates buys Feynman's "Messenger" lectures

June 22, 2009

Bill Gates recently bought the rights to a series of lectures by legendary Caltech physicist Richard Feynman. The former Microsoft head's purchase shows that the cultural and scientific legacy of Feynman remains strong even 21 years after his death.

The lectures, given in 1964 as part of Cornell University's Messenger Lecture Series, were filmed by the BBC, who had retained the rights since. Gates purchased the lectures for an undisclosed amount.

But what would the former Microsoft head want with the copyright to lectures by the revered physicist? In a recent interview with the CERN Bulletin, Gates said that his only plan is to make the footage freely available to the public.

Add to that Gates' reverence for Feynman, and it makes sense. The lectures are only the latest addition to Gates' personal collection of Feynman-related material, which includes original manuscripts of some of Feynman's best known work.

"I have heard that Gates really respects and admires Feynman. They exchanged a few calls back in the 1980s," said author and cognitive neuroscientist Al Seckel, who became a close friend and student of Feynman's.

Feynman is perhaps best known for his series of autobiographical books and for the transcriptions of lectures he gave as a faculty member at Caltech, The Feynman Lectures on Physics.

California-based photographer Joe Decker, who took several classes from Feynman while studying for a mathematics degree at Caltech, remembers Feynman as being unparalleled as a teacher.

"Feynman had an uncanny ability to convey the essence of an idea," Decker said. "That, in addition to his incredible abilities of storytelling...was why he was so incredibly loved."

Although Gates has yet to announce how the lectures will be made available, anyone too anxious to wait can catch segments on YouTube. The lectures are also available in Feynman's book The Character of Physical Law.

Update: The Messenger lectures are now available online. Our story about it here.

By Nicholas Bock

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