Gulliver's travels – Beyond the map (1968)

Philip Morrison

By working with scales, we have seen that the laws of mechanics and electricity are not the only laws of physics. In the last of his CHRISTMAS LECTURES, Philip Morrison explores a new physics, voyaging far beyond where Gulliver's ship could sail.

Watch time: 59:26
Philip Morrison speaking  next to a mouse in a cage at the Ri theatre
Credit: Royal Institution

Lecture 6 – Beyond the map

From the 1968 Lecture programme

In the lectures we have seen how strongly size determines those laws of physics any system will display. The physicist has learned that size is still more fundamental; by working with small objects and with large he has come to realise that the laws of mechanics and electrcitiy are not the only laws of physics.

Atoms are in restless motion, which we recognise as temperature; atomic structure itself displays a still more subtle internal motion; and turning to truly giant scale, large enough masses follow the pull of remote bodies in space no matter how we try to hold them still.

We enter new physics by treating one single sort of device, a simple vibrator, at every possible scale. Our voyages of scale travel far beyond where Gulliver's ship could sail or modern rockets fly.

About the 1968 series of CHRISTMAS LECTURES

In the 1968 CHRISTMAS LECTURES, physicist Philip Morrison explores the science of scale through the eyes of Jonathan (also knows as Dean) Swift's classic book, Gulliver's Travels.

From the 1968 Lecture programme:

It was the marvellous imaginary voyages of Lemuel Gulliver which made us see a world of petty six-inch patriots, or of sixty-foot people, large-minded and generous. Dean Swift was not writing science, but he lighted for our minds the meaning of size in our perception and in all human affairs.

In science the scale of things is often decisive. We human beings can view the world from one scale only, our own. But in that world are ants and whales, mountains and seas, planets, stars and atoms. A great deal of their nature is explainable as the consequence of their magnitude, for the fundamental building bricks of all the world, the particles of the physicist, fix a size built somehow into everything material.

1968 CHRISTMAS LECTURES' disclaimer

The Ri has replaced the footage of the Tacoma Bridge Collapse with an alternate video of the same event as the original copyright could not be cleared.