Stalwarts of Physics at Techkriti!

Techkriti 2014 saw as its chief guest the celebrated and widely respected astrophysicist Dr. Walter H.G. Lewin. Professor Emeritus of Physics at MIT, Dr. Lewin has been the childhood hero of many a student across the world for his unique teaching style and nature as well as for his eccentric experiments. His video lectures on classical mechanics and electromagnetism have reached millions of people across the world through MIT OpenCourseWare and recently through the massive open online course destination site and online learning platform, edX. Dr. Lewin’s style of teaching and catchphrases have gained almost legendary proportions. Videos are made of his quintessential chalk markings while people emulate his loud and clear exclamations of “Aha!”. One of the most famous demonstrations is of course his swinging on a pendulum to prove that ‘physics works’! Add to that his candid declaration before his students after a successfully enlightening lecture – “All of you have now lost your virginity… in physics” and you have a teacher loved by all. Walter Lewin could proudly declare that he could make his students love physics whether they liked it or not.
So, expectedly, his reputation preceded him. On the 5th of March 2014, the entire campus of IIT Kanpur was abuzz with news of the arrival of Dr. Lewin. Many were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of him at CCD and photographs of him with the students went viral on the internet. Others preferred barging into his room – D008 at the Visitors’ Hostel. But Dr. Lewin was gracious enough to offer time to almost all the students, agreeing to talk with them at the CCD outlet, arguably his favourite place to hang out.  A connoisseur of coffee, Dr. Lewin, when not talking of physics and society and general problems of humanity, would express his love for espresso, the only civilized way of starting a morning!  Overcoming his hiccoughs of comprehending the Indian English accent, Dr. Lewin inquired about the educational scenario in India, voiced his opinions and his concerns and also expressed his mildly critical views of policies by various governments, India and beyond. Whatever he said and wherever he went, a rapt audience of eager students willing to meet their idol would be waiting!

Hence it was expected that the Main Auditorium would be jam-packed for his talk, even at the supposedly ungodly hour of 10:00 pm. Some people even had to be left behind in the rush to witness the Dutch astrophysicist in action. And he did not disappoint. The audience listened in rapt attention to his lecture on the birth and death of stars, and their final fates. Dr. Lewin lectured on how several factors control their destiny en route to becoming neutron stars, black holes or white dwarfs. And of course, a Lewin lecture without involving the audience in experiment is meaningless! So the attendees got to understand first-hand about the Doppler shift, using a tuning fork and a borrowed hammer to strike it with (the original hammer having been confiscated while entering India) – something that kept them at the edge of their seats. Informative explanations of the history of radio-pulsars being discovered was also given, along with the surreptitious removal of the removal of Jocelyn Bell’s name from the discovery – which according to him was probably one of the early cases of sexism in academia!

Overall, the late-night lecture and the friendly nature of Walter Lewin was the topic of discussion on campus for days to come!

Along with Lewin, the other famous physicist and educator to grace Techkriti was Prof. David. J. Griffiths. Almost all first-year students would be familiar with his name due to the immense popularity of his (in)famous book Introduction to Electrodynamics, a veritable Bible for the takers of the fresher’s course on electrodynamics.

However, his popular talk focused on more fundamental aspects of physics – his current area of research being particle physics. After a hefty introduction by Prof. H.C. Verma, Griffiths proceeded to give a  detailed lecture about the current paradigms in particle physics with lucid explanations for even the uninitiated to grasp!

Walter Lewin with undergrads

Walter Lewin with undergrads

Following the lecture was a more personal discussion session with the grandfatherly Griffiths, an unplugged version of him, in the Physics Department Seminar Room at the Faculty Building. It was there that he shared the joy (and pain) of academia; his love and affection for his thesis advisor and guide, the famous Sidney Coleman, who gave more impetus to Griffiths’ own way of research, rather than ‘guide’ explicitly. His good-mannered bushy-moustached face lit up at the questions on academic books, while he himself admitted about the influence of certain other books, namely Jackson’s, on his work! And so  The passion he had for spreading knowledge was evident from the caressing manner he adopted when writing in his soothing informal language to teach physics to the starry-eyed undergraduate! Sprinkled between his inspiring words and discussions on physics teaching were his own experiences of Reeds College and University of Utah, in the ‘middle of nowhere’! Add to that his obliging to sign his books for the eager students of IIT Kanpur!
Techkriti 2014 turned out to be a treat for the lovers of Physics, and a fantastic learning experience for all! And the vox populi hopes and demands for more such inspiring presence.

Written by Sharbatanu Chatterjee and Praharsh Suryadevara