Walter Lewin, part 2: a benediction from the star(s)

Walter Lewin concludes his lecture, as viewed in the overflow space in 32-123 with sunlight streaming in from above

On Friday I got to sit in on the final special lecture by MIT Physics Prof. Walter Lewin in a series of lay person’s talks he taped for Japanese NHK TV. As I noted in my last post (which was read and corrected by Prof. Lewin himself in a remarkably benign bolt from the heavens) after seeing the first lecture in the series, Lewin is a video legend, his introductory physics lectures having been seen through MIT’s Open CourseWare by millions of people worldwide. Seeing him in person, surrounded by actual MIT people who understand what the symbols in the (few) equations mean, has been an inspiring connection to the intellectual and educational mainspring of the Institute where I’ve managed to work for nine years.

Lewin’s final talk was on The Birth and Death of Stars, and talked about the life of Sol-like stars and the very different and more dramatic lives of larger stars as they may become supernovae, white dwarfs and neutron stars. If I’m not mistaken, Lewin illustrated the unbelievable density of neutron stars by saying that a teaspoon-full would weigh 500 million tons. He also said that the neutron star remnant at the core of the Crab Nebula revolved thirty times per second. Finally he illustrated how in an x-ray binary star system (wonderfully referred to elsewhere as “cataclysmic variable” stars) a Sol-like “donor” star is paired with an “accretor” star (white dwarf or neutron) that pulls the mass of the donor into an accretion disk around itself.

Beyond his exposition of these facts with great verve and an assumption that his audience could share his own amazement and wonder (which was correct!), I was struck by Lewin’s attention to the human dimension of science. First he talked about the graduate student, Jocelyn Bell,  who made the actual observations in the late 1960s that confirmed the existence of pulsars. While her (male) supervisor won the Nobel Prize for the discovery, she did not share it, and Lewin described this injustice as a black mark on the Swedish Academy that can never be undone.

And after talking about x-ray binary stars, Lewin concluded by saying, “For some lucky stars there is life after death, provided they find a suitable companion. It is my wish that you find during life–not after death–the right companion, radiate, and be happy.” It was a beautiful benediction for the thousands of students Lewin has taught in person, and the now tens of millions that he will reach via MIT OCW and Japanese TV.

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