Building a Bigger Orbit


At age 75, Walter H.G. Lewin ranks as one of the scientific universe's hottest and coolest rock stars.

His notoriety comes from elevating solid lecturing at one of the nation's top universities to new heights of enjoyment and enlightenment through Internet outlets such as iTunes and YouTube.

The secret to his cybersuccess? Keeping it simple and real, as well as really accessible, he claims.

"My legacy will not be through the various discoveries I made over the last several decades," Lewin says matter of factly from his offices at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has worked with such notables as astronomer George W. Clark, and helped advance the field of astrophysics, including work on x-rays.

(According to his MIT bio, "From 1970 to 1980, he directed the MIT balloon group and discovered in 1970-71 the first slowly rotating x-ray pulsar GX 1+4.")

"What I believe I won't be forgotten for is my 102 lectures on the Web, which are watched by 2 million people per year. All told, I still believe they have staying power because I discuss physics in the context of timeless discoveries made by Isaac Newton and others dating back to the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries."

It is perhaps for this reason that Lewin's just-released book, c, is hardly your typical college science tome. Instead, the prose plays as an intimate conversation; a mix of "try-this-at-home" science and his own everyday reality — including his passions for art, music, family and personal role models — flow seamlessly together.

Born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, and raised in Holland, the naturally curious Lewin briefly but poignantly refers to life during the Holocaust in his preface, but prefers not to dwell on it: "My Holocaust experiences did not have any impact on how I teach, but it did profoundly change my life," he says, "especially given my grandparents died at Auschwitz."

While Lewin adamantly prefers not to go further into conversation on the Holocaust, the emotional intensity in his voice strongly suggests that those life-changing and threatening experiences prompted him to pursue his scientific studies and career from a humanistic vantage point.

What he will say is that his experience during World War II "was so immense that there is not one single day that goes by that I do not think about what happened. I am very much in support of human rights in every country, while I am also opposed to every extremist religious organization of any faith.

"Anything that could lead to the atrocities committed by dictators like Hitler then or Ahmadinejad today," he says of Iran's leader, "scares the hell out of me."

Lewin swings back to his present-day vocation. Though he modestly states his book may not reach as many people as his now ubiquitous videos do, he felt For the Love of Physics— co-authored with Warren Goldstein — would advance his goal of bringing the everyday wonders of physics to people of all ages and walks of life.

"I hope the book, like the videos, will have readers starting to look at the world in a different way.

"It was not written for physicists," he notes; indeed, "it is less about teaching the reader physics, and more about giving them a new perspective on how the world works, which can change and enrich their lives."

It's interesting, however, that the way he describes the evolution of the book as a "chain reaction" has a physics-like ring to it.

How did it all happen? Several years ago, a New York Times article about him headlined "At 71, Physics Professor Becomes a Web Star" triggered an immediate reaction among 25 top literary agents who felt a book echoing Lewin's teaching approach was the next logical step.

With Goldstein as co-author, there were plenty of lab "trial-and-error" sessions in creating the book, says Lewin.

It all paid off: "Warren did one hell of a job," says the astrophysicist, "given near the impossible task to collect all of those interviews and learn so much physics."

Levin extends credit to other science stars of past and present, like Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye the Science Guy, whose presentations of science material were done "in an honest way" that led viewers and fans "to think," as opposed to certain cable and PBS shows that put so much time and expense into what he called high-tech "hocus pocus" that detracts from scientific principles — or even gets them wrong.

While Lewin's propensity for honesty, accuracy and simplicity keeps him front and center in the changing world of physics and relevant in the age, he does point out that there is some personal sacrifice involved in doing what is most beneficial for his fans around the world.

"There is a price to pay for fame, such as the two hours worth of email I get every day, as I answer every piece of fan mail personally," notes Lewin.

He adds: "This has opened up new horizons of knowledge for anybody with a computer and a little curiosity."


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