With his European accent and electrically charged hair, Walter Lewin more than evokes the mad scientist of cartoons and B movies. For years, the MIT emeritus professor has been delivering silly, energetic, easy-to understand physics lectures. Videos of him swinging in front of the classroom on a huge pendulum went viral before anyone had coined the term.
Last year, he gave one last lecture. and retired at 75. But, this summer, he’s engaged in an encore performance. Lewin has prepared eight new lectures and is delivering them before live audiences for Japanese public television. On Monday – a brilliant summer morning — students and admirers packed a windowless lecture hall to see Lewin live.
“What is electricity? What is magnetism?” he asked, cameras following him from three different angles. “It is a very easy question to ask but it is not possible to answer it — not in two lectures not even in THE…” – his voice rising –“… THIRTY-FIVE LECTURES I spend with my freshman on this topic.”
He then tried, rubbing a glass rod with fabric and using a Mylar balloon to demonstrate positive and negative charges. Other tools included a rolled-up copper wire, confetti, a comb, and bulbs powered by an industrial-looking hand pump. No sign of Lewin’s trademark pendulum. But, despite moving with a bit of palsy, he climbed up on the desk with ease– and took a kid with him.
“Nelson,” he said. “I am going to beat you… It is a sacrifice for the sake of science.”
Soon, young Nelson was up on the desk and Lewin was “beating “ him with a piece of fur. A billowing fistful of Christmas tinsel demonstrated conductivity. The audience let out an “oooooo!”
MIT reports that five million people have watched Lewin’s lectures online. The professor started out on Seattle public television and then moved to MIT Open Courseware, where his videos are program favorites. He’s also easy to find on You Tube and iTunes, but he reportedly responds to emails and remains accessible to his fans and students. At the end of this talk, they crowded around the desk and asked him to pose for pictures and sign books. He complied uncomplainingly. Kate Tatar is an incoming MIT Freshman who is working as an intern at Lincoln Lab for the summer. She had seen Lewin online before she got an email about the event.
“I was like – I’ve got to go,” she said. “It was really great to see him in person. He just lights up the room.”
Considering his topic, Lewin should be pleased.
Four more talks to go. Free, but get there early and know you’ll be giving Japanese TV permission to film you.
- The Hidden Beauty of Rainbows
Monday, July 9
- Resonance and the Sounds of Music
Friday, July 13
- Quantization and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle
Monday, July 16
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