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A strange book, and not one to my liking
on 5 May 2015
Walter Lewin was a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) until his retirement in 2009 and was well known for his popular lectures on physics which appeared on the MIT OpenCourseWare website - that is until MIT indefinitely suspended access to Lewin's courses on OpenCourseWare in late 2014 "after its investigation of a serious matter" (to quote the message that now appears on the OpenCourseWare website when you click on some of the links in Lewin's book). As I don't know the outcome the investigations I will restrict myself here to this specific comment from the website but those intrigued as to what this serious matter was are free to search online.
The book is a strange one, both in terms of its contents and its style of writing. The first nine chapters address a few selected areas of physics, such as bodies in motion, electricity, magnetism, rainbows, conservation of energy, but leave many other areas untouched; the final six chapters focus on the author's main area of research, namely x-ray astronomy. Undoubtedly, the book is unbalanced in terms of what it covers and doesn't cover. However, this is not so much a book that attempts to explain physics, but rather a book that explains how Lewin taught physics. Thus the book provides a platform, especially in the earlier chapters, for Lewin to describe some of the bizarre demonstrations he would perform in front of students, one in particular which appeared quite dangerous although his faith in the reproducibility of physics ensured his safety.
The style of writing was not to my liking. I'm not sure who he was expecting to read the book but to my mind he comes across as somewhat patronising, assuming perhaps that his readers know nothing of physics. In reality, I suspect most readers are quite clued up on the subject, and are the reading the book largely to see how Lewin approached the subject. Nevertheless, his passion and energy for both physics and education come across in abundance and it is easy to see why he had such a good reputation as a teacher.