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Professor of Physics, Emeritus
Name: Walter H.G. Lewin
Title(s): Professor of Physics, Emeritus
Phone: (617) 253-4282
Assistant: Teresa Santiago (617) 253-7078
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Area of Physics
View the Lectures
- "For the Love of Physics" [MIT Video]
- "How to Make Teaching Come Alive" [MIT Video]
- "Polarization: Lightwaves, Rainbows, and Cheap Sunglasses" [MIT Video]
- "The Birth and Death of Stars" [MIT Video]
- "The Sounds of Music" [MIT Video]
- "The Mystery of Light" [MIT Video]
- "The Wonders of Electricity and Magnetism" [MIT Video]
- "Looking at 20th Century Art through the Eyes of a Physicist" [MIT Video]
Take a Class
- OpenCourseWare: 8.01 Newtonian Mechanics
- OpenCourseWare: 8.02 Electricity & Magnetism
- OpenCourseWare: 8.03 Vibrations and Waves
From 1960 to 1965, Prof. Lewin carried out research in low-energy nuclear physics in The Netherlands. In 1966, he joined the MIT X-ray Astronomy Group. With George Clark he conducted all-sky balloon surveys (>25 keV) from the Northern and Southern hemispheres (1967-69). This led to the discovery in 1967 of the first rapid X-ray variation, a flare from Sco X-1 lasting ~30 minutes. From 1970 to 1980, he directed the MIT balloon group and discovered (in 1970-71) the first slowly rotating X-ray pulsar GX 1+4.
Lewin was co-investigator on the SAS-3 project, in which he directed the burst observations that discovered several X-ray bursters, among them the Rapid Burster, which, when active, can produce more than 5,000 bursts per 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).
Lewin was Co-Principal Investigator on HEAO-1 (A4), which has yielded the first all sky catalog at high-energy (>25 keV) 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 X-ray 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 have studied the relation between the X-ray spectral state and the radio brightness of several bright low-mass X-ray binaries.
Lewin was closely involved in ROSAT observations of the nearby galaxies M31 and M81. Lewin and his graduate student Eugene Magnier have made deep optical CCD observations of M31 (complete to approximately 21 mag) in four colors; they have published a catalogue (~1" positions) of 500,000 objects. To date, already ~100 optical identifications have been made of the ~400 X-ray sources in the field of M31. Lewin initiated the successful X-ray observations (with ROSAT) within six days of the appearance of supernova SN 1993J in M81.
Since 1978, Lewin has collaborated with his close friend Jan van Paradijs of the University of Amsterdam with whom he has co-authored 150 papers. This collaboration has been a highlight in Lewin's life (see the article, "My Quarter Century with Jan").
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 Kouveliotou and Van Paradijs, they discovered a new type of X-ray burst source (GRO J1744-28; the Bursting Pulsar). They received a NASA Achievement Award for this discovery.
Lewin's collaboration with Professor Van der Klis in Amsterdam led to the discovery of kHz oscillations in many X-ray binaries (1996-1998). The origin of these oscillations is still not understood.
Using the Chandra Observatory, Lewin and his graduate student (now Dr. Dave Pooley), have made extensive studies of supernovae, and of the faint X-ray sources in Globular Clusters. This research (which is still ongoing) is done in collaboration with scientists from the University of Washington (Seattle), IAS in Princeton, UC Berkeley, the University of Amsterdam and Utrecht in The Netherlands, and the Naval Research Laboratory (Washington, DC). The research on supernovae produced the first X-ray spectrum with unprecedented energy resolution of SN 1989S. 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. This has been suspected for almost three decades, but we now have unambiguous evidence (see Selected Publications, below).
With graduate student Jon Miller (now Dr. 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: Chandra, the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer (RXTE), and the European observatories XMM-Newton and Integral.
"Compact Stellar X-ray Sources" was published in 2006 by Cambridge University Press. This book is a natural follow-up on its predecessors, "Accretion-driven Stellar X-ray Sources" (1983) and "X-ray Binaries" (1995). Lewin is the main editor on these standard reviews in X-ray Astronomy.
Lewin's lectures at MIT are legendary. Many have been shown for over six years (starting in 1995) on UWTV in Seattle, reaching an audience of about four million people. He personally responded to all e-mail requests he received (about hundred per month) from UWTV viewers, who varied in age from 7 to 90. For fifteen years (starting in 1983) he was on MIT Cable TV helping freshmen with their weekly homework assignments. His programs, which were aired 24 hours per day, were also frequently watched by upper-class students. Additionally, his 35 lectures on Newtonian Mechanics, 36 lectures on Electricity and Magnetism and 23 lectures on Vibrations and Waves can also be viewed at MIT'S OpenCourseWare, iTunes U, YouTube and Academic Earth. Finally, seven special lectures for science teachers and for middle school students can be viewed on MIT World.
These lectures are being watched by about 5000 people daily from all over the world, that's almost two million people per year! Many teachers show them regularly in their class rooms, and Bill Gates wrote Professor Lewin that he has watched all his lectures more than once, and that he learned a lot from them. The many responses that Professor Lewin receives daily are quite wonderful and often very moving. You can read about them in the following articles:
- The Heading of the front page article in the New York Times (by Sara Rimer) on December 19, 2007, reads: "At 71, Physics Professor Is a Web Star".
- Professor Lewin (with co-author Warren Goldstein) talks a great deal about his lectures in his recent book "For the Love of Physics" (Free Press, Simon & Schuster). This book will be translated in more than 10 languages.
- Bill Gates wrote: "For the Love of Physics captures Walter Lewin's extraordinary intellect, passion for physics, and brilliance as a teacher. Hopefully this book will bring more people into the orbit of this extraordinary educator and scientist". Review by Bill Gates of my book "For the Love of Physics"
- The Los Angeles Times wrote: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/books/la-ca-walter-lewin-20110703,0,4419771.story
A native of The Netherlands, Professor Lewin received his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Delft (1965). In 1966, he came to MIT as a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Physics and was invited to join the faculty as an Assistant Professor later that same year. He was promoted to Associate Professor of Physics in 1968 and to full Professor in 1974.
In the seventies and eighties Lewin collaborated with the artists Otto Piene (born in Germany), who was for many years the Director of MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies, and with Peter Struycken (Dutch) who is one of the leading computer artists in the world.
Awards & Honors
Professor Lewin's honors and awards include the NASA Award for Exceptional Scientific Achievement (1978). In 1984 he was the recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Award and of a Guggenheim Fellowship. That same year, he received the MIT's Science Council Prize for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, and the W. Buechner Teaching Prize of the MIT Department of Physics in 1988. In 1986 he was the Distinguished Spring Lecturer at Princeton University. In 1993 he was elected as a Corresponding Member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences. In 1996 he was elected as an American Physical Society Fellow. In 1997, he was the recipient of a NASA Group Achievement Award for the Discovery of the Bursting Pulsar. In 2003 he was awarded the Evertt Moore Baker Memorial Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching. In 2011 he received the Educator Award for OpenCourseWare Excellence (ACE). He was named one of "The Best 300 Professors" in 2012.
Professor Lewin has published more than 450 scientific articles. Here follow some Selected Publications.
- "Observation of an X-Ray Flare from Sco X-1," W.H.G. Lewin, G.W. Clark and W.B. Smith, Astrophysical Journal (Letters) 152, L55 (1968).
- "X-Rays from a New Variable Source GX 1+4," W.H.G. Lewin, J.E. McClintock and G.R. Ricker, Astrophysical Journal (Letters) 169, L17 (1971).
- "The Discovery of Rapidly Repetitive X-Ray Bursts from a New Source in Scorpius," W.H.G. Lewin, J. Doty, G.W. Clark, S. Rappaport, H.V.D. Bradt, R. Doxsey, D.R. Hearn, J.A. Hoffman, J.G. Jernigan, F.K. Li, W. Mayer, J. McClintock, F. Primini, J. Richardson, Astrophysical Journal (Letters) 207, L95 (1976).
- "Dual Character of the Rapid Burster and a Classification of X-Ray Bursts," J. Hoffman, H. Marshall and W. Lewin, Nature 271, 630 (1978).
- "Discovery of Optical Bursts from an X-Ray Source, MXB 1735-44," J.E. Grindlay, J.E. McClintock, C.R. Canizares, J. van Paradijs, L. Cominsky, F.K. Li and W.H.G. Lewin, Nature 274, 567 (1978).
- "Evidence for a Four-Hour Optical Period in 4U/MXB 1636-53," H. Pedersen, J. van Paradijs, W.H.G. Lewin, Nature 294, 725 (1981).
- Exchange of Letters between W.H.G. Lewin and Panamarenko in "Struycken and Panamarenko" Catalogue, Studium Generale, T.H. Eindhoven, The Netherlands (1981).
- "Precursors to X-Ray Bursts, the Result of Expansion and Subsequent Contraction of the Neutron Star's Photosphere," W.H.G. Lewin, W.D. Vacca, and E.M. Basinska, Astrophysical Journal (Letters), 277, L57, (1984).
- "Discovery of Intensity-Dependent Quasi-Periodic Oscillations in the X-Ray Flux of GX 5-1," M. van der Klis, F. Jansen, J. van Paradijs, W. H. G. Lewin, E. P. J. v. d. Heuvel, J. E. Truemper, and M. Sztajno, Nature, 316, 225 (1985).
- "Quasi-Periodic Oscillations in the X-Ray Flux of the Rapid Burster (MXB 1730-335)", L. Stella, F. Haberl, W.H.G. Lewin, A. Parmar, J. v. Paradijs, and N.E. White, Astroph. Journal, 324, 379, (1988).
- "A New Kind of Oscillations in the Persistent Emission of the Rapid Burster", L.M. Lubin, W.H.G. Lewin, R.E. Rutledge, J. v. Paradijs, M. v.d. Klis, and L. Stella, Monthly Not. Roy. astron. Soc., 258, 759, (1992).
- "X Rays from SN 1993J," H.-U. Zimmermann, W.H.G. Lewin, P. Predehl, B. Aschenbach, G. Fabbiano, G. Hasinger, L.M. Lubin, E. Magnier, J. van Paradijs, R. Petre, W. Pietsch, and J. Truemper, Nature, 367, 621, (1994).
- "Three Decades of X-Ray Astronomy from the Point of View of a Biased Observer," W.H.G. Lewin, "The Evolution of X-Ray Binaries", AIP Conference Proceedings 308, eds. S.S. Holt & C.S. Day, American Institute of Physics, page 3, (1994).
- "X-ray Bursts," W.H.G. Lewin, J. van Paradijs & R. Taam, in: X-ray Binaries, eds. W.H.G. Lewin, J. van Paradijs & E.P.J. v.d. Heuvel, Cambridge Univ. Press, p. 175, (1995).
- "Black-Hole Binaries," Y. Tanaka & W.H.G. Lewin, in: X-ray Binaries, eds. W.H.G. Lewin, J. van Paradijs & E.P.J. v.d. Heuvel, Cambridge Univ. Press, p. 126, (1995).
- "Discovery of a New Type of Burster from the Galactic Center Region," C. Kouveliotou, J. van Paradijs, G. J. Fishman, M. S. Briggs, J. Kommers, B. A. Harmon, C. A. Meegan, W. H. G. Lewin, Nature, 379, 799, (1996).
- "Discovery of Sub millisecond Quasi-periodic Oscillations in the X-ray Flux of Scorpius X-1", M. v.d. Klis, J. Swank, W. Zhang, K. Jahoda, E. Morgan, W. Lewin, B. Vaughan, & J. van Paradijs, Astrophys. Journal., 469, L1, (1996).
- "Traces of Science in Art" ("Sporen van Wetenschap in Kunst"). Invited Talk presented (in Dutch) LIVE FROM BOSTON at the opening of the Art Exhibit at the Royal National Academy of Sciences (KNAW) in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, June 26 (1998). The Art Catalogue Published by the Royal National Academy of Sciences (KNAW), (1998).
- "My Two Decades with Joachim", in: "Highlights in X-ray Astronomy", International Symposium in honor of Joachim Truemper's 65th birthday, June 17-19, 1998, MPE Report 272, ISSN 0178-0719, May 1999, page 7-15, (1999).
- "Optical Identifications of Multiple Faint X-ray Sources in the Globular Cluster NGC~6752: Evidence for Numerous Cataclysmic Variables'', D. Pooley, W. Lewin, L. Homer, S. Anderson, B. Gaensler, B. Margon, F. Verbunt, J. Miller, D. Fox, V. Kaspi & M. v.d. Klis, astro-ph/0110192, Astrophys. Journal, 569, 405, 2002.
- "Resolving the Composite Fe K-alpha Emission Line in the Galactic Black Hole Cygnus X-1 with Chandra,'' J. Miller, A. Fabian, R. Wijnands, R. Remillard, P. Wojdowski, N. Schulz, T. Di Matteo, H. Marshall, C. Canizares, & W. Lewin, astro-ph/0202083, Astroph. J., 578, 348, 2002.
- "X-Ray Supernovae,'' Stefan Immler & Walter H.G. Lewin, Lecture Notes in Physics, In: Supernovae and Gamma-ray Bursts, ed. Kurt Weiler, Springer Verlag, 2003, p. 91.
- "My Quarter Century with Jan'', Walter H.G. Lewin, Proceedings of the Jan van Paradijs Memorial Symposium, astro-ph/0105344.
- "From X-ray Binaries to Gamma-ray Bursts," ASP Conference Series Vol. 308, eds. E.P.J. van den Heuvel, L. Kaper, E.Rol, R.A.M. Wijers, page 27-57, 2003.
- "Dynamical Formation of Close Binary Systems in Globular Clusters,'' D. Pooley, W.H.G. Lewin, S.F. Anderson, H. Baumgardt, A.V. Filippenko, B.M. Gaensler, L. Homer, P. Hut, V.M. Kaspi, B. Margon, S. McMillan, S. Portegies Zwart, M. van der Klis, & F. Verbunt, Astrophys. J., 591, L131, 2003, astro-ph/0305003.