Why the World Watches This Man

1198095122Guess what? The Hub is still filthy with geniuses. Take a look at those Harvard and MIT scientists bending nature to their will, or that Harvard economist, already praised for his big ideas, now using marketing that’s as effective as a hip-hop video to get inner-city kids to learn.

This is nothing, though, compared to one Walter H.G. Lewin, a physics professor at MIT. Lewin has emerged as an international sensation, and not just because he beats students with cat fur. Lewin records his physics lectures, and thanks to the OpenCourseWare program MIT offers, the school posts the videos online. He’s become the academic rock stars of academic rock stars. The man:

[F]ires 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 stands back against the wall, holding a steel ball at the end of a pendulum just beneath his chin. He has just demonstrated how potential energy turns into kinetic energy by sending the ball flying across the stage, shattering a pane of glass he had bolted to the wall. Now he will demonstrate the conservation of energy. “I am such a strong believer in the conservation of energy that I am willing to risk my life for it,” he says. “If I am wrong, then this will be my last lecture.” He closes his eyes, and releases the ball. It flies back and forth, stopping just short of his chin. “Physics works!” Professor Lewin shouts. “And I’m still alive!”

Brilliant. Needless to say he has a huge following. His lectures have had the most downloads at iTunes U. And the emails keep coming in, hundreds more than he can attend to in a day, many of them from people who watch his lectures as devotedly as they’d watch Lost. This from a 62-year-old florist in San Diego:

“I walk with a new spring in my step and look at life through physics-colored eyes.”

Lewin makes us proud to live here.