Meet the Physicist who Loves Art
He has rocketed across his classroom on a fire extinguisher-powered tricycle and swung from a pendulum. His lectures have been viewed online millions of times, making him a global sensation. MIT physics professor Walter Lewin’s creative teaching style has endeared him to generations of students. He has also inspired his students to see art in a new light.
“I am a physicist, I am the last person you would think would be interested in art, but I also have a major art collection. You see, physics is my life, but art is my love, and has been my whole life. The ratio of art books to physics books in my home is about 20:1,” says Lewin, who as a child in the Netherlands visited art galleries and museums weekly with his parents.
After 43 years of teaching, Lewin is now professor emeritus. Freed of classroom responsibilities, he bought a house in southern Connecticut to be closer to New York, so he can visit its world-class art museums. A perfect weekend means hopping the train to New York and visiting his favorite museums—The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan, The Guggenheim, The Frick Collection, and The Whitney Museum of American Art.
When Lewin sees beauty in Maxwell’s equations and in a Picasso painting, he knows it is the same thing. Beauty is not about being pretty or pleasing to the eye. A work of art or a set of equations is beautiful if it changes the way you see the world.
“People who search either observationally or theoretically in physics, go through periods of trial and error; often they discover something completely by accident when they were after something different. You open yourself up for finding a goldmine,” he says. “The same thing happens with art.”
Whether teaching physics or lecturing about art, Lewin himself has changed the way people see the world. “Looking at 20th Century Art Through the Eyes of a Physicist” is a video lecture Lewin gave in 2004. It preceded a legendary event, where he took more than 100 students on field trips to art museums in Cambridge and Boston.
Reflecting on the field trips Lewin says, “Many wrote afterwards to say this was the first time they had been to an art museum. Others said, ‘You were the first to tell me that I’ve never actually seen art, I’ve only looked at it. You have made me see art, and now I can do it on my own.’ I could just cry.”
Although Lewin retired in 2009 he hasn’t stopped working. Now, he is “working night and day” getting Classical Mechanics 8.01x ready for a September offering on MITx, MIT’s online learning platform. He has put in more than 70 hours of preparation for many of his video lectures, including 3 or 4 dry runs. “I like to use video to teach at a high level,” says Lewin. “I see each lecture as a house, as architecture, so I guess you could say it’s a work of art.”