Tatsu Takeuchi says teaching theoretical particle physics and quantum field theory are a lot like standup comedy: you never know what's right until the audience starts laughing. But Tatsu doesn't just get physics students to laugh, he mainly gets them to see.
An Associate Professor of Physics at Virginia Tech, Tatsu teaches Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity with pictures: spacetime diagrams, to be precise. His lecture notes for an introductory class on "relativity for poets" cover the key concepts of relativity without the need for written equations. These notes are truly a model of clear thinking made visible.
Tatsu started taking physics because it he had trouble with it. "I was a bit of an arrogant young man and thought I understood everything... except physics. It annoyed me, so I thought I'd study it for a couple years, figure it out, and move on." That was twenty years, a Bachelors, Masters and PhD ago. "Now I still don't completely understand physics, but little things are starting to become clear."
For Tatsu, creating the diagrams was a breakthrough. "Coming up with visual explanations for something complex doesn't just help your audience 'get it' -- it helps you understand it better yourself."
Even with the clarity of his drawings, some students still struggle... not with the physics as much as their belief in a picture. Tatsu draws an analogy to students learning to read. When he taught reading to young children, the biggest breakthrough came when the kids made the conceptual leap that a scribble on a piece of paper could represent a sound. With spacetime diagrams the leap is to believe that several scribbles on a piece of paper can represent actions over time.
For those who speak Japanese, Tatsu has published a book covering the entire special theory of relativity, again without relying on any equations. I've ordered a copy and am anxious to see how much I can get out of it, language barrier be damned. Pictures are pictures, after all, regardless of language.