Meet Walter Lewin, a septugenarian Professor of Physics from MIT and one of the most engaging and inspirational presenters on planet Earth. My last encounter with physics lectures involved dry monotone delivery [think Charlie Brown’s teacher from the Peanuts TV show] accompanied by a scrolling set of notes on an overhead projector and once a week, we would be allowed conduct some dull, safe experiment.
In my college years, my abiding memory is of grinding my teeth with frustration as Professor after Professor would step up to the lectern, place their notes on it and treat us to a view of the top of their head as they solemnly intoned their notes out to us word for word. A handful stood out from that mode, a smaller number again were engaging, fascinating and visibly interested in communicating their passion to us undergraduates. But for the most part, they could have just left us photocopies of their notes and cut out the middle man.

Prof Lewin has gone many, many steps further and absolutely shattered the mould in his approach to teaching. He’s been written up in the New York Times and his online lectures have a devoted audience numbering thousands every day.

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You have to challenge them. You have to make them laugh
I could make them sit on the edge of their seat, I could make them wet their pants.

A little different from the average academic I think you’ll agree. When he was featured on a Yahoo interview, he gave a very interesting answer to the interviewer’s question:
“What is it about Physics that makes you feel alive in that way?”
“It’s the audience that makes me feel alive.”

Very different from the average academic [most of whom tell me that they regard undergraduates as little more than a bunch of nuisances who get in the way of the smooth running of the university]. Naturally there is a purpose to all this effort. His objective? “I want them to take away that they love Physics, that they love science, that they see the beauty of the world around them.” “Being funny for the sake of being funny does not interest me.” A real educator.

I asked Prof Lewin how he had developed his approach and why he had taken it so far, because this is hardly an incremental shift from head-down, crusty academic lecturing. His response was a pithy one – “My approach came natural.” He may have a natural, even impish, style, but a look at any of his lectures will show you that there he has put an immense amount of work into every detail. Each lecture takes about 40 hours to develop and Prof Lewin rehearses each one fully at least three times before showing it to an audience of students. The series of lectures he has developed costs around $300,000 to perform – and I mean perform.

You can find the absolute treat of 35 Physics lectures on the MIT OpenCourseWare site here.