“You want a physicist to speak at your funeral. You want the physicist to talk to your grieving family about the Principle of Conservation of Energy, so that they will understand that your energy has not died. You want the physicist to remind your sobbing mother about the First Law of Thermodynamics: that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. You want your mother to know that all your energy, every vibration, every joule of heat, every wave of every particle that was her beloved child remains with her in this universe. You want the physicist to tell your weeping father that amid the energies of the cosmos, you gave as good as you got.
“And at one point you’d hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your broken-hearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair — those hundreds of trillions of particles — have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your spouse rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let him know that the photons that bounced from you and that were gathered in the particle detectors that are his eyes, that those photons have created within his brain constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever.
“And the physicist will remind the congregation of how much of all our energy is given off as heat. There may be a few fanning themselves with their programs as she says it. And she will tell them that the warmth that flowed through you in life is still here, still part of all that we are, even as we who mourn continue the heat of our own lives.
“And you’ll want the physicist to explain to those who loved you that they need not have faith; indeed, they should not have faith. Let them know that they can measure, that scientists have measured precisely the conservation of energy and found it accurate, verifiable and consistent across space and time. You can hope that your family will examine the evidence and satisfy themselves that the science is sound and that they will be comforted to know that your energy is still around.
“Because, according to both the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics, not one bit of you is gone: you’re just less orderly.”
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.
There is a tide in the affairs of men, or so opined Brutus in Julius Caesar.
Likewise, there is something like a tide in the edu-blogosphere, or at least a prevailing wind. And the prevailing wind right now seems to blowing against the idea of National Curriculum levels (try Joe, Daisy or Keven for their wiser, more coherent thoughts on this issue.)
But here’s the thing: I’ve always quite liked the idea of levels.
There. I’ve said it. Now I feel like Captain Rum in Blackadder:
Edmund: Look, there’s no need to panic. Someone in the crew will know how to steer this thing.
Rum: The crew, milord?
Edmund: Yes, the crew.
Rum: What crew?
Edmund: I was under the impression that it was common maritime practice for a ship to have a crew.
Rum: Opinion is divided on the subject.
Edmund: Oh, really?
Rum: Yahs. All the other captains say it is; I say it isn’t.
Blackadder II, Episode 3: Potato
Now this is not to say that some schools did some mighty strange things with levels and sub-levels. Like insisting that Key Stage 3 students should progress by two sub-levels per year. And woe betide any teacher that did not achieve this minimal standard of progression, or — horror of horrors! — reported that a student had made negative progress. How dare one cause even the minutest blip on our glorious straight lines on our graphs (drawn in Excel! with colour coding!) of student progression!
And so, for a quiet life, some rascally teachers may have looked at last year’s level, added two sub-levels to it, and entered that.
And, lo, it came to pass that everybody was happy: “Yea, we have numbers, and numbers are scientific. Gosh, some of us even use numbers and letters, which is beyond scientific: I mean, it’s more like advanced cognitive calculus of your learning soul, right? And Ofsted want to see progress over time. Which is shown by our graphs. In Excel. With colour coding. A glorious and undeviating straight line. For every single student. God, we are so good, aren’t we? Outstanding, even.”
That said, I am still in favour of keeping a form of assessment level. No, not the hyperformal “Oh-they’ve-got-to-sit-both-SATS-papers-in-order-to-get-a-reliable-level-and-sublevel” type of level.
What I have got in mind is an approach that was introduced to me many, many moons ago. It was called the CONTROL WORD approach to levels (ring any bells for anyone else yet?)
Level 3: DESCRIBES cause and effect using everyday language (e.g. “The wind blew the door shut”)
Level 4: Uses scientific TERMINOLOGY (e.g. “A force is a push or a pull.”)
Level 5: EXPLAINS cause and effect using scientific terminology (e.g. “The boat slowed because of the drag force of the water.”)
Level 6: Explain cause and effect using an ABSTRACT concept (e.g. “The bulb became dimmer because the resistance of the circuit increased.”)
Level 7: Uses a scientific MODEL to explain a phenomenon (e.g. “The wire has resistance because the freely moving electrons collide with the atoms of the wire and lose energy.”)
Level 8: Links PHENOMENA using a sophisticated model [or models] (e.g. “The atoms vibrate with greater amplitude at higher temperatures. This means that the freely moving electrons will collide more frequently with them. Thus the resistance of the wire increases with temperature.”)
The sublevels were allocated as follows:
(c) can do this with coaching or with highly structured prompts
(b) can usually do this with some prompting or coaching
(a) can do this relied on to do this independently
I’ve always secretly applied this assessment schema when asked for NC levels, and my rule-of-thumb-pulled-out-of-thin-air level has usually been at least comparable with “two-sodding-SATS-papers-to-bloody-well-mark-just-to-generate-one-number-and-one-stupid-letter approach”, or the T.S.S.P.T.B.W.M.J.T.G.O.N.A.O.S.L Approach, as an educational consultant might call it.
Anyhow, now my secret is out. Please feel free to pile on and criticise.
I shall sign off with what I think is an appropriate quotation from Wittgenstein:
My propositions are elucidatory in this way: he who understands me finally recognizes them as senseless, when he has climbed out through them, on them, over them. (He must so to speak throw away the ladder, after he has climbed up on it.)
He must surmount these propositions; then he sees the world rightly.
The Duke of Wellington once remarked that the battle plans of Napoleon were made of marble, whereas his own were made of little bits of string. Napoleon’s plans were brilliant and effective, as majestic as a triumphal arch. However, they all shared one fatal flaw: if one little bit went wrong then the whole edifice came crashing down. Wellington said that his own battle plans were different: if one string broke, he would merely knot two other strings together and the plan would continue on.
The pdf what Cummings wrote* has the feel of man attempting to build a Napoleonic battle plan in order to sort out, once and for all, all the tiresome disagreements about educational policy.
And there’s no denying the man has been busy: he has read a lot. An awful lot. From a very wide range of authors. And it’s quite an interesting and eclectic read.
But it also gives the impression of being no more than an energetic exercise in quote mining, and not a dispassionate investigation of the issues. In other words, I strongly suspect that Cummings read so widely in order to find extracts to support his pre-existing views, rather than thoughts or insights to help form or challenge them.
Reading this document, I was put in mind, more than once, of the fictional doctor, Andrey Yefimitch:
“You know, of course,” the doctor went on quietly and deliberately, “that everything in this world is insignificant and uninteresting except the higher spiritual manifestations of the human mind … Consequently the intellect is the only possible source of enjoyment.”
— Anton Chekov, Ward 6
Cummings laments that “less than one percent are well educated in the basics of how the ‘unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics’ provides the language of nature and a foundation for our scientific civilisation.” That, though true, is not necessarily a reason for lambasting our current education system as “mediocre at best”. For me, this seems a curious priority.
Sir Isaac Newton was roundly criticised by his contemporaries for lacking a solid theoretical foundation for the infinitesimal calculus: Bishop Berkeley accused him of trafficking in “the ghosts of vanished quantities”. A couple of centuries later, the rigorous** notion of a limit laid that criticism to rest. Now of course it is generally better to understand more rather than less, but would learning about the foundational difficulties of the calculus be the most pressing priority of a 18th Century student of Physics? I would argue no, not necessarily.
For my part, I have thought long and hard about the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” (in Eugene Wigner’s phrase). I have discussed it with students. I think it’s a fascinating issue, and I adore far-ranging, off-spec discussions of this ilk. But is it an educational priority? Not in my opinion.
Other parts of the pdf seem just plain odd to me:
It would be interesting to collect information on elite intelligence and special forces training programmes (why are some better than others at decisions under pressure and surviving disaster?). E.g. Post-9/11, US special forces (acknowledged and covert) have greatly altered … How does what is regarded as ‘core training’ for such teams vary and how is it changing?
— Cummings, p.98
Interesting, sure. These special forces teams are (I presume) made up of already highly-motivated and highly-capable individuals. Cummings overarching priority always seems to be towards the individuals on far right of the “bell curve” (another Cummings hot topic: see pp.13, 20, 67, 224 and others). He genuinely seems to recoil in fastidious horror at the very concept of being “mediocre”.
This essay is aimed mainly at ~15-25 year-olds and those interested in more ambitious education and training for them. Not only are most of them forced into mediocre education but they are also then forced into dysfunctional institutions where many face awful choices: either conform to the patterns set by middle-aged mediocrities (don’t pursue excellence, don’t challenge bosses’ errors, and so on) or soon be despised and unemployed.
Compare with Dr Yefimitch:
Life is a vexatious trap; when a thinking man reaches maturity and attains to full conciousness he cannot help feeling that he is in a trap from which there is no escape.
— Anton Chekov, Ward 6
Apparently, Mr Cummings plans to leave the DoE and take up the headship of a Free School. Although I have serious reservations about the Free School programme, I welcome this as an encouraging example of a politician putting his money where his mouth is. And I wish him well. I genuinely do.
However, from my own experience I have to say that I do not think his abstract philosophy will be as reliable a guide for navigating the choppy waters of a headteacher’s life as he believes it will be.
I have quoted from Chekov’s Ward 6 already. This masterful short story is the best description I have ever come across of the result of a collision between a man with an abstract philosophy and real life. In a discussion with a lunatic, Dr Yefimitch proposes that: “There is no real difference between a warm, snug study and this [cold, freezing] ward … A man’s peace and contentment do not lie outside a man, but in himself.” However, disaster strikes and he is committed to the asylum:
Andrey Yefimitch was even now convinced that there was no difference between his landlady’s house and Ward No. 6, that everything in the world was nonsense and the vanity of vanities. And yet his hands were trembling, his feet were cold, and he was filled with dread…
Now, I am not suggesting that our Dom will end up in an insane asylum, or even cold, hungry and alone. What I suggesting is that since one Free School head of what might be described as “the-how-hard-can-it-be?” tendency has, sadly, already bitten the dust, Mr Cummings may find that running a school (or just being a plain old teacher for that matter) requires far more than is dreamt of in his philosophy.
Unless, that is, he learns to make his plans out of string rather than out of marble…
Congratulations to Peter Higgs and Francois Englert on their Nobel Prize for their work on the Higgs Boson and the Higgs Field — yay, them!
In a nutshell, the Higgs Field and the Higgs Boson were born to rescue The Ultimate Theory Of How Twelve Particles And Their Interactions Can Explain Pretty Much Everything That Has Ever Happened and Probably Ever Will (Oh, Except For Gravity, That Is); or, as physicists called it, a little more prosaically, The Standard Model.
The Standard Model works really well except that, in its original form, it cannot explain the origin of mass. In other words, it cannot explain why some particles are heavy and others are light. The Higgs Field explains how this happens, and if there is a Higgs Field, there must be a special sort of particle called a Higgs Boson connected with it.
What follows is my attempt to explain some of these concepts in a manner suitable for school students. I call it the Spongebob Squarepants Analogy.
Our Spongebob Squarepants lives, not at the bottom of the sea, but on the steeply sloping side of a mountain (work with me on this!) and for the life of him cannot figure why things like sponges are heavy but un-spongelike things are light.
He comes up with a groundbreaking idea to explain this difference: it’s raining!!!
Its raining, all the time. Everywhere. Invisibly and imperceptibly. Neither Spongebob nor the spongepeople can see the rain, but it’s raining. And it never, ever stops raining.
Spongbob reckons that spongelike things are heavy because they absorb this mysterious, invisible stuff called water. Non-spongelike things do not absorb this water stuff and so they stay light.
The rain represents the Higgs Field.
Now, how can Spongebob tell if he’s right about this water that he cannot see directly?
He predicts that if he bangs two pieces of sponge together with enough energy then they will release enough water to form (sorry, more technical terms here) a puddle.
The puddle will not last a long time because it will start running downhill (remember that our Spongebob lives on the side of a mountain?) The puddle is not stable in Spongebob’s universe. But if Spongebob is very quick and very lucky he might be able to catch a glint of sunlight from the surface of the puddle, and this will prove that he’s right about the water and the rain.
In fact, Spongebob persuades the spongepeople to build what he calls the Large Sponge Collider…but that’s another story.
So, to sum up:
Spongebob Squarepants = Peter Higgs
Rain = Higgs Field
Water = Higgs Mechanism
Puddle = Higgs Boson
My dad would sometimes respond to my more strained and unlikely metaphors in a stern voice, saying: “Son, an analogy is only an analogy!” However, I like to think that he would have enjoyed this one.
Farmer Jenkins was justly proud of his free-range chicken farm, and particularily of Griselda, his prize layer. So, it came as no surprise (at least to him) when he placed highly in the All-England Free Range Egg Taste Challenge. “Don’t you worry, lass,” he cooed to Griselda as his Range Rover purred through the warm summer night, “next year we’ll come first, I promise.”
Griselda continued sleeping in her carry case, seemingly comforted by the presence of the garish gold-painted plastic statue by her side, which featured a chicken contorted to form an approximation of the numeral 2.
On a whim, Farmer Jenkins locked the award in his office safe when he got home, and returned Griselda to her roost with reverential gratitude.
The next day he unlocked the safe to retreive the award. He had a fair bit of trouble opening the door. “That’s strange,” he murmured, bending down to examine the obstruction. It appeared that the award had somehow moved in the night and jammed part of the door mechanism. “H’mmm, how did that happen?” Farmer Jenkins shook his head. The award appeared . . . bigger, somehow. But surely that was impossible. However, what troubled Farmer Jenkins most of all was the fact that the plastic chicken, what he could see of it, at least, now appeared contorted into the shape of the numeral 3.
As he telephoned his friend Brian to share his puzzlement, he heard a metallic tearing. He stared dumbfounded at an apparition of a plastic chicken rearing above the torn remnants of his safe. And now the wings and body of the plastic fowl appeared to form the numeral 4.
“Did anyone touch it?” asked Brian urgently over the crackly landline connection
“No, no-one,” said Jenkins with certainty.
“Ah, that explains it,” said Brian.
“Oh yes,” concluded Brian. “You see, in an isolated system, hen trophy will always increase.”
In Britain, being invited on the BBC radio programme “Desert Island Discs” is an accolade roughly equivalent to being knighted. Guests are invited to choose six records that they might take with them to a desert island.
The recent episode with Stephen Pinker reminded me of a variant that I’d pitched to the BBC’s Head of Light Entertainment not so long ago. In “Desert Island Graphs” a panel of notable scientists sit around and hold a no-holds-barred humorous roundrobin discussion of which six graphs they’d carry with them to a desert island.
My own perennial favourite is of course the old Binding Energy per Nucleon against Nucleon Number because it is a wonderful illustration of how basic physics affects the unfolding of the universe: large red giant stars cook up each of the elements in turn up to iron before “sploding” (thank you Ricky Ricardo) as a supernova (“Wha’ ‘appen?!?”).
To say that my overtures were brutally rejected would be an understatement. As a matter of fact, the then Head of Light Entertainment threatened not only to have me hunted down and killed, but to have my hometown napalmed and the ground sown with salt.
So, you’ve decided to join the blogger bandwagon? Why yes, I most decidedly have. The TEACHER blogger bandwagon, if you please. I have been inspired by a number of educational blogs that I really enjoy to have a go myself. After all, how hard can it be? (As the free school committee said to the education secretary.)
So, I have decided to put finger (singular, I am a lousy typist) to virtual keyboard and write my profound thoughts on erm…well, stuff, basically. And stick some Physicsy guff in here at some point. And some ill-informed comment, gossip, innuendo and vapid intellectual posturing to boot!
Attentive readers will note that my blog title is a Physics-themed homage to the immortal “1066 And All That” by Sellar and Yeatman. I hope to do for Physics teaching what they did for History teaching.
So there. Plus I will be rude about Michael Gove from time to time.
John Mortimer once wrote that he joined the swinging sixties “just as the tube doors were closing”. I hope that one day a fellow teacher blogger who is insanely jealous of my reader stats and influence will be as cutting about my entrance on to the blogging scene.