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 ON THE SHELF

REVIEWED BY ROBIN TATU

ON THE SHELFExuberant Teaching

A lecture-hall legend brings his passion to the page.

For the Love of Physics:
From the End of the Rainbow to the Edge of Time — A Journey Through the Wonders of Physics.

by Walter Lewin with Warren Goldstein.
Free Press 2011. 302 pages


Few physics instructors can claim rock star status, so Walter Lewin makes for a pleasing exception. For some 45 years, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor held students in thrall with his dramatic demonstrations of basic scientific concepts: swinging across the stage on a metal ball to test the properties of a pendulum; firing a rifle into water-filled paint cans; or jetting into the lecture hall atop a rocket-fueled tricycle. When Lewin delivered his farewell lecture last year, the 566-seat hall was filled to capacity; yet this represented only a fraction of his fan base. Internet viewings of the professor’s talks on MIT OpenCourseWare, YouTube, and iTunes U now surpass 5 million. Indeed, Lewin’s were among the first courses posted when MIT introduced its online site in 2001; his introductory physics courses continue to rate among its 20 most popular and have gained accolades from none other than Bill Gates.

Audiences are drawn by the theatrics. Who wouldn’t thrill to watch a professor suspended above the blackboard, sucking juice from a 5-meter-long straw? But the fact that they stay – and learn – has more to do with Lewin’s passionate commitment to communicating the relevance, importance, and wonder of his chosen field. “Physics,” Lewin enthuses, “is a way of seeing – the spectacular and the mundane, the immense and the minute – as a beautiful, thrilling, interwoven whole.” In this book coauthored with former student Warren Goldstein, Lewin transfers to the page the exuberance of his classroom, focusing on “the remarkable ways in which physics illuminates the workings of our world and its astonishing elegance and beauty.”

For the Love of Physics guides readers through core concepts underlying energy, motion, force, electricity, and magnetism, as well as consideration of Lewin’s own specialty, X-ray astronomy. His delivery is lively and informal, and interaction is encouraged: Blow up a balloon and rub it on your hair to learn about positive and negative electrons; build a sounding board out of a takeout box from Kentucky Fried Chicken to test pitch and vibration. Readers are exhorted to view Lewin’s online videos, reference scientific websites, and mail in answers, queries, and photos. Also woven into the narrative is the author’s personal and professional history, from his family’s survival in Holland during the Second World War to his emigration to the United States and exhilarating adventures as a young researcher testing X-ray telescopes aloft giant balloons in the Australian outback. Throughout, he reiterates the message that physics is relevant, exciting, and “fundamentally an experimental science” that grapples with uncertainties.

While many readers may pick up For the Love of Physics to renew or deepen their scientific understanding, ASEE members may find it particularly valuable for inspiration in the classroom. Not everyone may be willing to stand in front of a wrecking ball to illustrate the law of energy conservation, but the book abounds with many humbler demonstrations: dangling a large rock from a square of cut pantyhose to depict the funnel of a black hole, or swinging a colander of wet lettuce to emulate the artificial gravity experienced by astronauts launching into space. Each of Lewin’s examples and metaphors challenges students to see in a different manner; to walk down a street, for example, considering the “furious battle raging inside every single building” as it fights Earth’s gravitational forces. Academic readers may also envision fresh ways to present long familiar material so that it “connects to the genuine interest students have in the world.”

What counts in teaching, Lewin believes, “is not what you cover but what you uncover”; not the minutiae of the mathematics nor memorization of notes on the blackboard but the deep beauty of physics. Certainly, it is difficult to resist a man who declares “criminal” any physics course that neglects to teach about rainbows – then goes on to describe the steps to take to capture and hold a rainbow in one’s hand. Read For the Love of Physics for the pleasure and inspiration it provides.

 

Robin Tatu is a contributing editor of Prism.

 



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