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Walter Lewin is 'hands on' helping students grasp physics

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In it Lewin reveals how his family suffered when he was a young boy in the Netherlands during the Nazi occupation in World War II. "The Nazis quickly sent my grandparents to Auschwitz and murdered them – gassed them – the day they arrived, Nov. 19, 1942," he writes. "I always use the word murdered, so we do not let language hide the reality."

Lewin began teaching high school physics in the Netherlands. "Already there I was an eccentric teacher," concedes Lewin, whose frazzled hair and European accent inevitably bring to mind Albert Einstein.

He was invited to teach at MIT in the 1960s on a one-year program and never left, taking full advantage of the impressive resources there to fine-tune his lectures.

"MIT had a long history of physics demonstrations," he says. "I just did them in a slightly different way."

Though the lectures have an informal, unhurried look, they're the result of weeks of exacting preparation and rehearsal. On "performance day," Lewin would arrive at the lecture hall at 5:30 a.m. and conduct a full dress rehearsal.

"My timing is perfect to 100 percent accuracy [because] I dry run my lectures so carefully," he says during a recent interview at the office he still keeps at MIT.

He clearly enjoys the hold he creates on his viewers. "I can make my students sit on the edge of their seats. I can make them laugh. I can make them cry. I can make them stop breathing," he says. "I have them completely in my grip."

He admits to being a bit of a ham. "My lectures are performances ... they're like an actor on the stage," he says. "I see that as a very positive thing."

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