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Walter Lewin: A Modern Mr. Wizard

Whether it’s swinging on a pendulum or riding a rocket tricycle, the former M.I.T. professor, now on YouTube, finds different ways to assist students as they study the laws of physics.

What’s the Latest Development?

Former M.I.T. professor Walter Lewin’s theatrical style of teaching physics interested his students in the discipline. Now, he has a large following on the Internet as videos of his lectures have hit YouTube. The eccentric teacher has been known to do risky-looking demonstrations (but safe, he insists, if you understand physics). “He’s ridden that pendulum like a swing, piloted a rocket tricycle powered by a fire extinguisher, and turned cigarette smoke from blue to white by holding it in his lungs.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Lewin’s aim is to take examples from real life to make physics leap from textbook pages and become indelibly etched in students’ minds. “Though the lectures have an informal, unhurried look, they’re the result of weeks of exacting preparation and rehearsal. On ‘performance day,’ Lewin would arrive at the lecture hall at 5:30 a.m. and conduct a full dress rehearsal. ‘My timing is perfect to 100 percent accuracy [because] I dry run my lectures so carefully,’ he says during a recent interview at the office he still keeps at M.I.T.”


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