Everyone's talking about Emlyn - Emlyn Hughes, the Columbia University physics professor who began his students' immersion in his subject by turning down the lecture theater's lights, stripping off his street clothes and putting on a ninja uniform, and then showing a film featuring disconnected images of violence and atrocity - the destruction of the Twin Towers, goose-stepping Nazis, Mussolini strung up, Major Kong on his bomb from Dr. Strangelove.
A stage show with other black-suited figures running swords through stuffed toys accompanied the film.
The YouTube of the event - taken by a student - records reactions. Laughter, confusion, unease. What's this got to do with physics? Are you kidding me? Is this for real?
At the end of the performance, Hughes speaks to the class: "In order to learn quantum mechanics, you have to strip to your raw, erase all the garbage from your brain and start over again."
The idea behind the sound and light, then, was to jolt students out of intellectual complacency, to convey the idea that the field of quantum mechanics is counterintuitive, and that they won't get anywhere with it until they clear their minds of preconceptions.
Professor Shake 'em up is a hoary figure, all over popular culture. Miss Jean Brodie gets the girls aflutter. Mr Dead Poets Society brings stuffed shirts back to life. To Sir with Love. Blackboard Jungle. Educating Rita. The guy who taught the king not to stutter. Pygmalion, for goodness' sake. A philosophy professor in Don DeLillo's story, Midnight in Dostoevsky, is a silent shabby depressive who randomly rouses himself to say things like Imagine a surface of no color whatsoever. and Logic ends where the world ends. The class loves it.
We tendered our deepest trust to the stark nature of his methodology. Of course, there was no methodology. There was only Ilgauskas. He challenged our reason for being, what we thought, how we lived, the truth or falsity of what we believed to be true or false. Isn’t this what great teachers do, the Zen masters and Brahman scholars?