I Repeat, Science Is Cool!

2 comments December 19th, 2007at 07:33am Posted by Eli

Maybe I need to start checking out the iTunes U…

Walter H. G. Lewin, 71, a physics professor, has long had a cult following at M.I.T. And he has now emerged as an international Internet guru, thanks to the global classroom the institute created to spread knowledge through cyberspace.

Professor Lewin’s videotaped physics lectures, free online on the OpenCourseWare of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, have won him devotees across the country and beyond who stuff his e-mail in-box with praise.

(…)

Professor Lewin delivers his lectures with the panache of Julia Child bringing French cooking to amateurs and the zany theatricality of YouTube’s greatest hits. He is part of a new generation of academic stars who hold forth in cyberspace on their college Web sites and even, without charge, on iTunes U, which went up in May on Apple’s iTunes Store.

In his lectures at ocw.mit.edu, Professor Lewin beats a student with cat fur to demonstrate electrostatics. Wearing shorts, sandals with socks and a pith helmet – nerd safari garb – he fires a cannon loaded with a golf ball at a stuffed monkey wearing a bulletproof vest to demonstrate the trajectories of objects in free fall.

He rides a fire-extinguisher-propelled tricycle across his classroom to show how a rocket lifts off.

He was No. 1 on the most downloaded list at iTunes U for a while, but that lineup constantly evolves. The stars this week included Hubert Dreyfus, a philosophy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Leonard Susskind, a professor of quantum mechanics at Stanford.

Last week, Yale put some of its most popular undergraduate courses and professors online free. The list includes Controversies in Astrophysics with Charles Bailyn, Modern Poetry with Langdon Hammer and Introduction to the Old Testament with Christine Hayes.

(…)

With his wiry grayish-brown hair, his tortoiseshell glasses and his intensity, Professor Lewin is the iconic brilliant scientist. But like Julia Child, he is at once larger than life and totally accessible.

“We have here the mother of all pendulums!” he declares, hoisting his 6-foot-2, 170-pound self on a 30-pound steel ball attached to a pendulum hanging from the ceiling. He swings across the stage, holding himself nearly horizontal as his hair blows in the breeze he created.

The point: that a period of a pendulum is independent of the mass – the steel ball, plus one professor – hanging from it.

“Physics works!” Professor Lewin shouts, as the classroom explodes in cheers.

(…)

A fan who said he was a physics teacher from Iraq gushed: “You are now my Scientific Father. In spite of the bad occupation and war against my lovely IRAQ, you made me love USA because you are there and MIT is there.”

(…)

Chasing rainbows hooked Mr. Boigon, the San Diego florist. He was vacationing in Hawaii when he noticed the rainbow outside his hotel every afternoon. Why were the colors always in the same order?

When he returned home, Mr. Boigon said in a telephone interview, he Googled rainbows. Within moments, he was whisked to M.I.T. Lecture Hall No. 26-100. Professor Lewin was in front of a few hundred students.

“All of you have looked at rainbows,” he begins. “But very few of you have ever seen one. Seeing is different than looking. Today we are going to see a rainbow.”

For 50 minutes, he bounds across the stage, writing equations on the blackboard and rhapsodizing about the “amazing” and “beautiful” physics of rainbows. He explains how the colors always appear in the same order because of how light refracts and reflects in the water droplets.

For the finale, he creates a rainbow by shining a bright light into a glass sphere containing a single drop of water.

“There it is!” Professor Lewin cries.

“Your life will never be the same,” he tells his students. “Because of your knowledge, you will be able to see way more than just the beauty of the bows that everyone else can see.”

I loved teachers like this when I was in high school and college; sadly, there were precious few of them.

Entry Filed under: Coolness,Science

2 Comments

  • 1. virgotex  |  December 19th, 2007 at 10:33 am

    You are now my Scientific Father.

    You are now my Cool-tastic Father, Eli!

  • 2. ellroon  |  December 19th, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    I love stories like this one and the mammoths. Thanks for catching them!


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