To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.
–William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
Yet another whiny email from a Year 12 student. He requests a special selection of past paper questions on a particular topic. My answer? “Go to the flipping website that I have so laboriously set up for your benefit which has resources galore of that particular ilk and more, as well as digital bells and whistles, you clod!”
I did express the above sentiments somewhat more diplomatically in the email. And, to be honest, I was glad to get even that whiny missive: I feel we might be on the verge of that tipping point where the Year 12s stop being passive GCSE Spongebobs and become a little more independent, a little more grown up, a little more like proper 6th form students. Maybe. Just maybe. It might be a sign. I loved it when I heard him say to the other students in the class that “there’s a lot of good stuff on the website.”
Now I know that the student concerned had seen the website previously. He had even complimented me on it. But he obviously hadn’t seen it properly. And, strangely enough, it started me thinking about how we do not always see the world as others see it.
To my mind, one the finest descriptions and “thought experiments” on this topic comes from a short story by the incomparable R. A. Lafferty:
“It may be that I am the only one who sees the sky black at night and the stars white,” he said to himself, “and everyone else sees the sky white and the stars shining black. And I say the sky is black, and they say the sky is black; but when they say black they mean white.”
— R. A. Lafferty, Through Other Eyes, “Nine Hundred Grandmothers and other stories”
Do we genuinely ever see the world as others see it? The truth is — ultimately at least — we don’t rightly know.
Charles Cogsworth, the scientist in R. A. Lafferty’s short story, invents a machine called the Cerebral Scanner which literally allows its user to see out through other people’s eyes, and to truly see the world as others see it.
Charles makes the mistake of using the Scanner to look out through the eyes of his girlfriend, Valery. He is horrified: “she hears sounds that I thought nobody could ever hear. Do you know what worms sound like inside the earth? They’re devilish, and she would writhe and eat dirt with them.”
Valery also uses the Cerebral Scanner to look out through the eyes of Charles, and is equally disturbed. She confronts the hapless Charles:
“You can look at a hill and your heart doesn’t even skip a beat. You don’t even tingle when you walk over a field.”
“You see grass like clumps of snakes.”
“That’s better than not even seeing it alive.”
“You see rocks like big spiders.”
“That’s better than just seeing them like rocks. I love snakes and spiders. You can watch a bird fly by and not even hear the stuff gurgling in its stomach. How can you be so dead? And I always liked you so much. But I didn’t know you were dead like that.”
“How can one love snakes and spiders?”
“How can one not love anything? It’s even hard not to love you, even if you don’t have any blood in you. By the way, what gave you the idea that blood was that dumb colour? Don’t you even know that blood is red?
“ I see it red.”
“You don’t see it red. You just call it red. That silly colour isn’t red. What I call red is red.”
And he knew that she was right.
–R. A. Lafferty, Through Other Eyes
The phrase that has stayed with me over all the years since I first read this story as a callow youth is Valery’s description of what is, to her, Charles’ unforgivable deadness to the wonders of the world: “You can watch a bird fly by and not even hear the stuff gurgling in its stomach.“
That is the experience of Physics that I want to communicate to my students. I want them to look at the universe and hear the stuff gurgling in its stomach. I want them to be able to experience their understanding, not just on an intellectual level, but also on a visceral level. This, to my mind, is what makes studying Physics fun.
Do I always succeed? Absolutely not. Do I sometimes succeed? Maybe, sometimes.
Do I have fun in classroom? A significant part of the time, yes. This is why I wanted to become a teacher. This is why I have stayed a teacher. And what about the other rubbish that is constantly being foisted on us?
Well, just for now, I think I’ll let it all go hang. I’ll worry about that on Monday.