A professor without boundaries

Award-winning MIT professor, Walter Lewin (74), graduated from TU Delft in 1966 with a PhD in nuclear physics. For Lewin, who subsequently became a web-star, science celebrity and net guru through his online lectures, riding a fire-extinguisher-propelled tricycle across his classroom, swinging on pendulums and creating rainbows are just a few examples of his entertaining lecture demonstrations.

Professor Walter Lewin. (Photo: Markos Hankin)
Professor Walter Lewin. (Photo: Markos Hankin)

You say: ‘If physics is dull, then the teacher is bad’. Can you explain this?
“In my opinion the reason so many high school students hate physics is that their teacher was bad. He failed to make them love physics! You can see the beauty of physics all around you. My goal is to make every student love physics. One hundred of my lectures on three different courses can be viewed on the web: Newtonian Mechanics, Electricity and Magnetism, and the Physics of Vibrations and Waves. I receive about 1,000 messages monthly. I’ve changed the lives of many, and many mention that I made them love physics.”

What are the differences between MIT and TU Delft?
“I only know the differences of my time. I entered the TU in 1954, earning my engineering degree in 1960 and my PhD in 1965. I only gave a colloquium in Delft 25 years ago, so I have no experience with classroom teaching in Delft.
I got my PhD degree without taking special relativity or quantum mechanics (QM) courses. That, in my view, is criminal! Physics majors at MIT are required to take two courses in QM. The department in Delft was run in a bureaucratic way. I worked at the nuclear reactor. One of the three directors there was incompetent. All he was interested in were bureaucratic issues to make our lives very difficult.
I came to MIT in January 1966. MIT was heaven for me: no bureaucracy. Unlike Delft, MIT was a climate in which one could flourish and expand. In June 1966 I was offered a faculty position. I never left! Nowadays I only come to the Netherlands once every two years to visit my sister in The Hague.”

Do you any anecdotes from your years in Delft?
“My supervisor, prof. Aaldert Wapstra (who was great), had given me permission to park my car on his assigned lot when he was not in Delft. When I started parking there, the director called me and insisted that I remove my car immediately.
In another example of bureaucracy, the radioactive isotopes that I needed for my work were made in the synchrotron in Amsterdam. I was allowed 25 cents for one cup of coffee in the morning and 1.25 guilders (the Dutch currency prior to the euro – ed.) for lunch. Receipts were requested even for the 25 cent coffees. I asked the chair of the physics department whether I could add the 25 cents of coffee to my luncheon, and submit one lunch receipt for 1.50 gulden. The chair – prof. Blaisse - wrote me that if I wanted to have gourmet meals I should do that at my own expense.”

How do you prepare your lectures?
“If I have to prepare a lecture for the first time, I spend weeks thinking about the architecture of my lecture. Once the architecture is in place (including candidate demonstrations), about two weeks before the lecture I do a dry run in an empty classroom. I place time notes in my lecture notes every five minutes to make sure that I never fall behind schedule. About one week before the lecture I dry run it again in an empty classroom and I then do a third dry run at 6:00 a.m. on the morning of the lecture.”

Has anything ever gone wrong in the class?
“No demonstrations ever went wrong. However, once three naked women ran up to me during the lecture. Streaking was popular at the time. Twice it happened that a group of female students brought me a wonderful aubade during my lecture. This messed up my time schedule, but it was worth it.”

Since your lectures are viewed by millions, one can say that you have students from all over the world, not just MIT. How do you feel about this?
“The responses I get from viewers all over the world are very rewarding. I’ve changed peoples’ lives in a very positive way. About one million people watch my lectures every year! On December 19, 2007, I was featured on the front page of the New York Times: ‘At 71 Physics Professor is a Web Star’.
Already in 1991, when I lectured on Newtonian Mechanics for freshmen, some of my lectures were videotaped. These lectures were shown in Seattle - University of Washington TV. Bill Gates wrote me that he watched these lectures!
In addition, at MIT I had a TV program called, ‘Help Sessions’. I helped the students with their homework in Newtonian Mechanics and Electricity and Magnetism courses. Professor Dick Larson of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at MIT had the vision to again tape my fall 1999 lectures, but this time in a very professional way. When MIT’s OpenCourseWare was born in 2001, my lectures were the very first to go online and they became a smashing success. I asked the physics department for financial support to tape my other lectures. The answer was that they were not interested.”

Can you briefly describe ‘the meaning of physics’ to you?
“Physics is all around us and it’s beautiful. Maxwell’s equations are beautiful. Rainbows are beautiful. The evolution of the universe is beautiful. Blue sky and red sunsets are beautiful. If you’ve never experienced the beauty of physics, I suggest you watch some of my lectures. I’ll make you love physics whether you like it or not.”

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