“The most miserable latch that’s ever been designed in the history of mankind or before.”Astronaut Jack R. Lousma commenting on some equipment issues during the NASA Skylab 3 mission (July to September 1973), quoted in Cooper 1976: 41
What does the worst circuit that’s ever been designed in the history of humankind or before look like? Without further ado, here it is:
‘But wait,’ I hear you say, ‘isn’t this the circuit intended for obtaining the data for plotting current-potential difference characteristic curves as recommended by the AQA exam board in their GCSE Physics and GCSE Combined Science specifications?’ (AQA 2018: 47)
Sadly, it is indeed.
Why is ‘the standard test circuit’ a *bad* circuit?
The point of this required practical is to get several paired readings of potential difference across a component and the current through a component to enable us to plot a graph (aka ‘characteristic’) of current against potential difference. Ideally, we would like to start at 0.0 volts across the resistor and measure the current at (say) 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 4.0, 5.0 and 6.0 volts. That is to say, we would like to treat the potential difference as the independent variable and adjust it in consistent, regular increments.
Now let’s say we use a typical school rheostat such as the one shown below as the variable resistor in series with the 10 ohm resistor. The two of them will behave as a potential divider circuit (see here and here for posts on this topic).
The resistance of the variable resistor can be varied between 0 and 16 ohms by moving the slider. When the slider is at A it will have the maximum resistance of 16 ohms and zero when it is at C, and in-between values at any other point.
When the slider is at C, the 10 ohm resistor gets the full potential difference from the supply and so the voltmeter will read 6.0 V and the ammeter will read (using I=V/R) 6.0 / 10 = 0.6 amps.
When the slider is at A, the total resistance of the circuit is 10 + 16 = 26 ohms so the ammeter reading (again using I=V/R) will be 6.0/26 = 0.23 amps. This means that the voltmeter reading (using V=IR) will be 0.23 x 10 = 2.3 volts.
This means that the circuit as presented will only allow us to obtain potential differences between a minimum of 2.3 V and a maximum of 6.0 V across the component by moving the slider between B and C, which is less than ideal.
‘It is a far, far better circuit that I build than I have ever built before…’
It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.Charles Dickens, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’
This circuit is a far better one for obtaining the data for a current-potential difference graph. This is because we can access the full 0.0 V to 6.0 V of the supply simply by adjusting the position of the rheostat slider. The rheostat is being used as a potential divider in this circuit rather than as a simple variable resistor.
When the slider is at B, the voltmeter will read 0.0 V and the current through the 10 ohm resistor will be 0.0 amps. A small movement of the slider from B towards C will increase the reading of the voltmeter to (say) 1.0 V and the ammeter would read 0.1 A. Further small movements of the slider will gradually increase the potential difference across the resistor until it reaches the full 6.0 V when the slider is at C.
A-level Physics students are expected to be able to use this circuit and enumerate its advantages over the ‘worst circuit in the world’.
And, to be fair, AQA do suggest a workaround that will allow GCSE student to side-step using ‘the worst circuit in the world’:
If a lab pack is used for the power supply this can remove the need for the rheostat as the potential difference can be varied directly. The voltage should not be allowed to get so high as to damage the components, check the rating of the components you plan to suggest your students use.AQA 2018: 16
If this method is used, then in effect you would be using the ‘built in’ rheostat inside the power supply.
So why not use the superior potential divider circuit at GCSE?
The arguments in favour of using ‘the worst circuit in the world’ as opposed to the more fit for purpose potential divider circuit are:
- The ‘worst circuit in the world’ is (arguably) conceptually easier than the potential divider circuit, especially if students have not studied series and parallel circuit before. This allows more freedom in sequencing when IV characteristics are taught.
- A fuller range of potential differences can be accessed even using the ‘worst circuit in the world’ if the maximum value of the variable resistor is much larger than the resistance of the component. For example, if we used a 0 – 1 kilo-ohm variable resistor in series with the 10 ohm resistor then very fine adjustments of the variable resistor would allow a suitable range of potential difference to be applied across the component.
- Students are often asked direct questions about the ‘worst circuit in world’.
In the next post, I will outline how I introduce and teach this required practical — using, to my shame, ‘the worst circuit in the world’ — and also supply some useful resources.
You can read part 2 here.
AQA (2018). Practical Handbook: GCSE Physics. Retrieved from https://filestore.aqa.org.uk/resources/physics/AQA-8463-PRACTICALS-HB.PDF on 7/5/23
Cooper, H. S. F. (1976). A House In Space. New York: Bantam Books