Walter Lewin

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Walter H.G. Lewin
Walter Lewin May 16, 2011 talk at MIT.png
Lewin in action during his farewell lecture, "For the Love of Physics", at MIT on May 16, 2011
Born (1936-01-29) January 29, 1936 (age 81)
The Hague, Netherlands
Residence Netherlands,
United States
Nationality Dutch
Fields Astrophysics, Physics
Institutions MIT
Alma mater Delft University of Technology
Notable awards
  • NASA Award for Exceptional Scientific Achievement (1978)
  • Alexander von Humboldt Award (1984 and 1991)
  • Guggenheim Fellowship (1984)
  • MIT Science Council Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (1984)
  • W. Buechner Teaching Prize (1988)
  • Everett Moore Baker Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching (2003)

Walter Hendrik Gustav Lewin (born January 29, 1936) is a Dutch astrophysicist and former professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Lewin earned his doctorate in nuclear physics in 1965 at the Delft University of Technology and was a member of MIT's physics faculty for 43 years beginning in 1966 until his retirement in 2009.

Lewin's contributions in astrophysics include the discovery of the first slowly rotating neutron star through all-sky balloon surveys and research in X-ray detection in investigations through satellites and observatories. Lewin has received awards for teaching and is known for his lectures on physics and online courses taught on edX and MIT OpenCourseWare. These lectures have been viewed online about 2 million times yearly.

In 2014, MIT determined that Lewin had sexually harassed an online learner; as a consequence, MIT removed the lectures from its learning platforms and ended its relationship with Lewin.[1][2]

Early life and education[edit]

Lewin was born to Walter Simon Lewin and Pieternella Johanna van der Tang in 1936 in The Hague, Netherlands. He was a child when the Nazis occupied The Netherlands during World War II.[3] His paternal grandparents Gustav and Emma Lewin, who were Jewish, were gassed in Auschwitz in 1942.[4] To protect the family, Lewin's father simply left one day without telling anyone, leaving his mother to raise the children.[3][5]

Academic career[edit]

Lewin went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology in January 1966 as a post-doctoral associate, and was appointed an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor of Physics in 1968 and to full Professor in 1974.[6]

At MIT, Lewin joined the X-ray astronomy group and conducted all-sky balloon surveys with George W. Clark. Through the late seventies, there were about twenty successful balloon flights. These balloon surveys led to the discovery of five new X-ray sources, whose spectra were very different from the X-ray sources discovered during rocket observations. The X-ray flux of these sources were variable. Among them was GX 1+4 whose X-ray flux appeared to be periodic with a period of about 2.4 minutes. This was the discovery of the first slowly rotating neutron star.[7]

In October 1967 when Scorpius X-1 was observed, an X-ray flare was detected. The flux went up by a factor of about 4 in ten minutes after which it declined again. This was the first detection of X-ray variability observed during the observations. The rockets used by other researchers could not have discovered that the X-ray sources varied on such short time scales because they were only up for several minutes, whereas the balloons could be in the air for many hours.[8]

Lewin was co-investigator on the Small Astronomy Satellite 3 (SAS-3) project. He directed the burst observations and discovered several X-ray bursters, among them was the Rapid Burster which can produce thousands of X-ray bursts in one day. His group also discovered that the Rapid Burster produces two types of bursts and established a classification of bursts as type I (thermonuclear flashes) and type II (accretion flow instabilities).[9]

Lewin was Co-Principal Investigator on High Energy Astronomy Observatory 1 HEAO-1 (A4), which has yielded the first all sky catalog at high-energy X rays. With H. Pedersen and J. van Paradijs, Lewin made extensive studies of optical bursts which are associated with X-ray bursts; for X-ray detections they used SAS-3 and the Japanese Observatory "Hakucho". Their combined burst observations demonstrated that the optical bursts are a few seconds delayed relative to the X-ray bursts. This established the size of the accretion disc surrounding the accreting neutron stars.

In his search for millisecond X-ray pulsations from low-mass X-ray binaries, in 1984–85 Lewin made guest observations with the European Observatory EXOSAT in collaboration with colleagues from Amsterdam and Garching, Germany. This led to the unexpected discovery of intensity-dependent Quasi-periodic oscillations (QPO) in the X-ray flux of GX 5-1. During 1989 to 1992, using the Japanese Observatory "Ginga", Lewin and his co-workers studied the relation between the X-ray spectral state and the radio brightness of several bright low-mass X-ray binaries.[10]

Lewin was closely involved in ROSAT observations of the nearby galaxies M31 and Messier 81. Lewin and his graduate student Eugene Magnier have made deep optical charge-coupled device observations of M31 in four colors; they have published a catalogue of 500,000 objects. Lewin and his graduate student David Pooley initiated the successful X-ray observations within six days of the appearance of supernova SN 1993J in M81.

Lewin collaborated with his close friend Jan van Paradijs of the University of Amsterdam from 1978 until van Paradijs' death. They co-authored 150 papers.[11]

He became a corresponding member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1993[12] and a fellow of the American Physical Society in 1993.[13]

Lewin and graduate student Jeffrey Kommers have worked on data from the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (GRO). This was a collaboration with the BATSE Group in Huntsville, AL. In early December 1995, with co-workers Chryssa Kouveliotou and Van Paradijs, they discovered a new type of X-ray burst source: (GRO J1744-28) the Bursting Pulsar, and received a NASA Achievement Award for this discovery.

In 1996–1998, Lewin's collaboration with Michiel van der Klis in Amsterdam led to the discovery of kHz oscillations in many X-ray binaries.

Using the Chandra X-ray Observatory, Lewin and his graduate student David Pooley made extensive studies of supernovae and faint X-ray sources in globular clusters. This research was done in collaboration with scientists from the University of Washington, IAS in Princeton, UC Berkeley, the University of Amsterdam and Utrecht in The Netherlands, and the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, DC. The research on supernovae produced the first X-ray spectrum with unprecedented energy resolution of SN 1989S.[citation needed] The research on Globular Clusters demonstrated that X-ray binary stars are cooked in the cores of the clusters where the stellar density is very high.

With graduate student Jon Miller, Lewin made extensive studies of black-hole X-ray binaries in our galaxy. Evidence was found for spectral distortions of the iron line (in X-rays) indicative of the influence of general relativity on the iron-line emission in the vicinity of the "event horizon" of the black holes. This research on black-hole binaries is continuing using all available observatories in orbit - among them: Chandra, the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE), and the European observatories XMM-Newton, Integral and NuSTAR.

Lewin retired from the MIT faculty in 2009. In December 2014, MIT revoked Lewin's Professor Emeritus title after an MIT investigation determined that Lewin had violated university policy by sexually harassing an online student in an online MITx course he taught in fall 2013.[1][2][14]

Lewin has published about 450 scientific articles as of 2014.[13]


  • 1978 - NASA Award for Exceptional Scientific Achievement
  • 1984 - Alexander von Humboldt Award
  • 1984 - Guggenheim Fellowship
  • 1984 - MIT Science Council Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching
  • 1988 - MIT Department of Physics W. Buechner Teaching Prize
  • 1991 - Alexander von Humboldt Award (again)
  • 1997 - NASA Group Achievement Award for the Discovery of the Bursting Pulsar
  • 2003 - MIT Everett Moore Baker Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching
  • 2011 - first recipient of the Educator Award for OpenCourseWare Excellence (ACE)[15]

On April 3, 2012, Lewin was ranked by the Princeton Review among "The Best 300". He was the only MIT faculty member (albeit, retired) to make it to that list.[16][17]


For about 15 years (starting in 1982) Lewin was on MIT Cable TV, with every week a different 1-hour program. They were aired 24 hours per day helping freshmen with their weekly homework assignments (they were called "Help Sessions"). Walter Lewin's 1992 lectures on Newtonian Mechanics (co-lectured with Bob Ledoux) and Lewin's "Help Sessions" have been shown for over six years (starting in 1995) on UWTV in Seattle, WA, reaching an audience of about four million people. Years later, Bill Gates wrote Lewin that he watched him very frequently on UWTV. Lewin personally responded to thousands of e-mail requests that he received per year from UWTV viewers. Videos of Lewin's 94 lectures on Newtonian Mechanics (1999), Electricity and Magnetism (2002) and the Physics of Vibrations and Waves (2004), among others, could be viewed on the MIT OpenCourseWare web site until MIT removed them after finding that Lewin had sexually harassed a student in the online course.[14] The videos can also be viewed on YouTube, iTunes and Earth Academic.

Two of Lewin's lectures have been viewed over a million times on YouTube. His 2011 farewell lecture "For the Love of Physics" is presently (May 2015) being viewed about 5000 times daily.[18] Many of his lectures can be viewed online on his personal YouTube channel. In 2007, The New York Times featured Lewin on the front page, talking about his massive influence on online education.[19]

Two of Lewin's courses were converted into edX courses, 8.01x (classical mechanics) and 8.02x (electricity and magnetism). People who pass "x" courses receive a certificate from MIT. Lewin's course on Electricity and Magnetism went online in February 2013, Newtonian Mechanics is online as of September 2013. As of May 2014, there were yet no plans to convert 8.03 "Vibrations and Waves" into an edX course.[20]

Videos of Lewin’s lectures on Videos on Teaching Excellence at MIT, YouTube and iTunes U have been viewed more than 12 million times by people all over the world — including Bill Gates, who has confessed to repeated viewings.[21][22]

In the summer of 2012, Lewin returned from his retirement to deliver a lecture series[23] initiated and funded by the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation (NHK). Each lecture features a selection of physics demonstrations that Lewin has used in his more than 43 years of teaching Physics at MIT. The lectures consist of 8 TV programs that were broadcast in Japanese on NHK in Japan in 2013. As of 2015, a region 2 DVD box set of this series is available in Japanese, with an optional partial English audio track and English subtitles.[24]

Allegations of sexual harassment[edit]

In early December, 2014, MIT announced that it had determined that Lewin engaged in online sexual harassment of an online MITx learner in violation of MIT's policies.[1] Inside Higher Ed reported that this learner was one of many (at least 10) female students to whom Lewin had sent inappropriate messages.[25] The alleged victim, who said that she came forward to ensure the case is not forgotten, asserted that Lewin pushed her to participate in sexual role-playing.[25] As a consequence of its internal investigation, MIT revoked Lewin's professor emeritus title[2] and indefinitely removed his lectures from the institute's online learning platforms.[26] However, Lewin's lectures are readily available on several websites. As of April 2015, his course lectures average approximately 5000 views a day.[18]

Personal life[edit]

Lewin is an art enthusiast and collector. He has lectured on the subject at MIT.[27] In the 1970s and 1980s, he collaborated with the artists Otto Piene (born in Germany), who was one of the founders of the ZERO movement and the director of MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies,[28] and Peter Struycken (Dutch), who is a computer artist.[4]

Media appearances[edit]

TV performances[edit]

Below are a selection of notable TV appearances:

  • 1998, A Science Odyssey, WGBH, Boston, Produced by PBS
  • 2003, The Elegant Universe, NOVA, Produced by PBS
  • 2005, Einstein's Unfinished Symphony, BBC
  • 2008, Riz Khan - Walter Lewin & physics [29]
  • 2011, The Fabric of the Cosmos, NOVA, Produced by PBS
  • 2011, The Martha Stewart Show, season 3 episode 3172 [30]
  • 2011, De Wereld Draait Door, VARA, the Netherlands, Oct 24[31]
  • 2012, De Wereld Draait Door, VARA, the Netherlands, May 9[32]
  • 2012, De Wereld Draait Door, VARA, the Netherlands, May 9 part II[33]
  • 2012, De Wereld Draait Door, VARA, the Netherlands, November 27[34]
  • 2013, January–February, 8 one-hour lectures, TV NHK, Japan.
  • 2014, September, French TV Canal+ series of documentary – "Special Investigations", on Online Education
  • 2014, The brilliant professor Walter Lewin 'I'm an artist' (Dutch TV NCRV) [35]
  • 2014, The World of Quantum, NOVA, Produced by PBS



  • Lewin, Walter; Goldstein, Warren (2011). For the Love of Physics: From the End of the Rainbow to the Edge of Time – A Journey Through the Wonders of Physics. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4391-0827-7.  (available in English, German, Dutch, Spanish, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Polish, Greek, Italian, Persian and Turkish)
  • Lewin, Walter; van der Klis, Michiel, eds. (2006). Compact stellar X-ray sources. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-82659-4. 
  • Lewin, Walter H.G.; van Paradijs, Jan; van den Heuvel, Edward P.J., eds. (1995). X-ray binaries. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-41684-1. 
  • Truemper, J.; Lewin, W.H.G.; Brinkmann, W., eds. (1986). The evolution of galactic X-ray binaries. D. Reidel Pub. Co.; Sold and distributed in the U.S.A. and Canada by Kluwer Academic Publishers. ISBN 90-277-2184-X. 
  • Lewin, Walter H.G.; van den Heuvel, Edward, eds. (1983). Accretion-driven stellar X-ray sources. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0 521 24521 4. 

Selected publications[edit]

Lewin has published about 450 scientific articles,[13] below are a selected[how?] few.

  • D. Pooley; W. Lewin; L. Homer; S. Anderson; B. Gaensler; B. Margon; et al. (2002). "Optical Identifications of Multiple Faint X-ray Sources in the Globular Cluster NGC~6752: Evidence for Numerous Cataclysmic Variables". Astrophysical Journal. 569: 405. arXiv:astro-ph/0110192Freely accessible. Bibcode:2002ApJ...569..405P. doi:10.1086/339210. 


  1. ^ a b c Cajigas Jimenez, Juan Esteban (December 9, 2014). "MIT removes professor's online lectures after harassment charge". The Boston Globe. 
  2. ^ a b c Lin, Leon (December 9, 2014). "MIT cuts ties with Walter Lewin after online harassment probe". The Tech. Retrieved March 12, 2017. 
  3. ^ a b Jennifer Chu (May 18, 2011). "A labor of love". MIT News. 
  4. ^ a b Lewin, Walter; Goldstein, Warren (2011). For the Love of Physics: From the End of the Rainbow to the Edge of Time – A Journey Through the Wonders of Physics. Simon and Schuster. pp. 11 12. ISBN 978-1-4391-0827-7. 
  5. ^ Kim Clark (January 10, 2008). "A New Physics Superstar". US News & World Report. 
  6. ^ Instructor Profile: Walter Lewin at MIT OpenCourseWare (archived 2009)
  7. ^ "X-Rays from a New Variable Source GX 1+4". Astrophysical Journal. 169: L17. October 1971. Bibcode:1971ApJ...169L..17L. doi:10.1086/180805. Retrieved 2013-04-20. 
  8. ^ "Continual Variations in the High-Energy Flux of X-Rays from Scorpius X-1". Astrophysical Journal. 162: L109. November 1970. Bibcode:1970ApJ...162L.109L. doi:10.1086/180635. Retrieved 2013-04-20. 
  9. ^ "ESA Science & Technology: X-ray light curve of the Rapid Burster in a very active Type II burst state". Retrieved 2013-04-20. 
  10. ^ "Quasi-periodic oscillations in low-mass X ray binaries". NAS-NRC, High-Energy Astrophysics. American and Soviet Perspectives. Bibcode:1991heaa.conf..251L. Retrieved 2013-04-20. 
  11. ^ Walter H. G. Lewin (2003). Edward P. van den Heuvel; Lex Kaper; Evert Rol; Ralph A.M.J. Wijers, eds. My Quarter Century with Jan. ASP Conference Proceedings. 308. p. 27. arXiv:astro-ph/0105344Freely accessible. Bibcode:2003ASPC..308...27L. 
  12. ^ "Walter Lewin". Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 17 July 2015. 
  13. ^ a b c "Walter Lewin". Simon & Schuster UK. Retrieved 2015-02-22. 
  14. ^ a b "MIT indefinitely removes online physics lectures and courses by Walter Lewin" (Press release). MIT News Office. December 8, 2014. 
  15. ^ "MIT TechTV – Inaugural Awards for OpenCourseWare Excellence". Retrieved 2013-04-20. 
  16. ^ "The Best 300 Professors". The Princeton Review. Archived from the original (PDF) on 23 December 2014. Retrieved 2014-12-22. 
  17. ^ M&C. "Professor Walter Lewin featured in "The Best 300 Professors"". Employees Portal. TU Delft. Archived from the original on 23 December 2014. Retrieved 23 December 2014. 
  18. ^ a b sati8335 (March 25, 2015). "YouTube Channel Containing Lewin's Video Lectures". 
  19. ^ Sara Rimer (December 19, 2007). "At 71, Physics Professor is Web Star". The New York Times. 
  20. ^ "Walter Lewin AMA on reddit". 2014-05-20. Retrieved 2014-09-09. 
  21. ^ Gates, Bill. "Walter Lewin of MIT Teaches Physics". 
  22. ^ "For the Love of Physics: Book Review by Bill Gates". ValueWalk. 7 March 2012. 
  23. ^ Archived from the original on February 3, 2014. Retrieved January 21, 2014.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  24. ^ "Walter Lewin – Nhk DVD Mit Hakunetsu Kyoshitsu DVD". Retrieved 2015-03-06. 
  25. ^ a b Straumsheim, Carl (January 23, 2015). "'We All Felt Trapped'". Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved March 12, 2017. 
  26. ^ Lin, Leon (January 14, 2015). "MIT says it removed Lewin videos for fear of continued harassment". The Tech. 
  27. ^ Lewin, Walter (date unknown). "Walter Lewin: Looking at 20th Century Art through the Eyes of a Physicist". Retrieved from
  28. ^ Val Grimm (July 21, 2014). "Otto Piene, leading figure in kinetic and technology-based art, dies at 86". MIT News. 
  29. ^ "Walter Lewin & physics". 
  30. ^ "Walter Lewin guest on the Martha Stewart Show". 
  31. ^ "Natuurkundige Walter Lewin, Diederik Jekel – 24-10-2011 – Uitzending Gemist". De Wereld Draait Door. Retrieved 2013-04-20. 
  32. ^ "Walter Lewin – 9-5-2012 – Uitzending Gemist". De Wereld Draait Door. Retrieved 2013-04-20. 
  33. ^ "Extra proef (2): Walter Lewin – 9-5-2012 – Uitzending Gemist". De Wereld Draait Door. Retrieved 2013-04-20. 
  34. ^ "Walter Lewin – Wet van behoud lading – 27-11-2012 – Uitzending Gemist". De Wereld Draait Door. 2012-11-27. Retrieved 2013-04-20. 
  35. ^ "The brilliant professor Walter Lewin 'I'm an artist' (Dutch TV NCRV)". 

External links[edit]