Thursday, December 29, 2011

For the Love of Physics

From the End of the Rainbow to the Edge of Time - A Journey Through the Wonders of Physics

Walter Lewin with Warren Goldstein

Waltr Lewin, professor of physics at M.I.T. does spend a lot of time in this book, which describes his intro to physics lectures, talking about rainbows. He even had his young daughter hold a spraying garden hose up over her head on a cold December day in Cambridge, MA to pose for a rainbow photo.

Lewin likes to do dramatic demonstrations of the principles of physics for his M.I.T. students, swinging on a pendulum across the lecture hall or holding one, a 15.5 KG ball, up to his nose and letting it go, to show that it won't come any closer than 1/8 of an inch from that nose on it's return trip. He has so far stood still enough not to get hit in the nose with his demonstration. His enthusiasm for the subject is contagious, which is why Lewin's introductory physics class has become so popular.

Electricity, magnetism, light, Newton's laws of motion, general relativity and Maxwell's equations are all touched upon in this book of science popularization. As is customary, all this is done, even Maxwell, without taxing the reader's math skills.

Lewin's work at M.I.T. besides teaching, has been in X-ray astronomy. There is an extended section of the book covering this subject, his adventures with giant helium balloons in Australia and the reasons for studying X-rays from outer space. This work is now done with satellites, but when Lewin started either a short rocket launch for a few minutes of observation or a stratospheric balloon ride of a couple of hours were all that could be done. X-rays are absorbed by Earth's atmosphere or we would all be fried.

M.I.T. has kindly put the whole series of Lewin's lectures, in video, on the web. You can watch to your heart's content at MIT Open Courseware.

By the way, Professor Lewin wants you to know the degree of uncertainty in all of your measurements. If you don't know that, you don't know anything!


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