Physics Lectures at the IoE

On Wednesday I was shipped off along with the rest of the L8 Physics population to a series of Physics lectures. There were five lectures, some of which caused some controversy among us. Here’s my take on matters:

The first talk was on avalanches. In short, the lecturer gave a quick run through of how avalanches occur, introducing concepts of fluid dynamics and elucidating key points about avalanches, including the different ‘flavours’ on offer (as he described it) and various methods of protecting against them. I personally think this was quite a good talk – his explanations of how avalanches form were clear and accessible to anyone who happened to be listening. There were some breathtaking shots of scenery and amazing clips of avalanches in full flow, and I really felt interested in what he had to say. His exposition of defence mechanisms against avalanches were a nice resolution – the case study of Iceland was well chosen and I enjoyed being led through the story of how various attempts to divert avalanches failed and the (sometimes) ingenious systems which were eventually adopted. He even showed us a clip of a simulation of an avalanche that used ping pong balls which looked a great deal of fun to conduct! Some of my peers dismissed it as a distinctly unscientific lecture, but my opinion is that it was more a discussion of the engineering problems faced by inhabitants of avalanche-prone areas and an interesting supplementary brief of the different types of avalanche as a means to better understanding of possible defence systems rather than an attempt to get an audience to understand the Bernoulli Principle.

We were then treated to almost an hour of someone talking about dark matter. Well, someone talking about general cosmology. Well, someone chatting about general cosmology, with a mention of dark matter at the end. My credentials entitle me to absolutely no authority whatsoever to comment on this lecture: the greatest height I’ve achieved in terms of credibility is becoming the Physics editor of the Science magazine at St Paul’s – an impressive-sounding title, but ultimately one of little significance. In essence, I’m a layman commentator; however I felt the lecturer failed to do such a promising topic justice. Dark matter is a hugely exciting topic – so much theory goes into it and it’s a conjecture which springs from measurements which seem to fly in the face of believable science – it’s on the border between Physics and fantasy and a controversial subject. However I felt the style in which the talk was delivered was contrived in such a way that those who already knew and understood the stuff the lecturer was talking about ended up bored since explanations and mathematics were distinctly lacking, while those who didn’t know much about this area of science got confused as almost none of the assertions were justified or explained in much detail and much knowledge and understanding was incorrectly assumed. It was almost like one of those horrific ‘science appreciation’ lectures which I so abhor and I felt the topic was betrayed by such an exposition. Perhaps the subject was ill-chosen for such an audience – a lecture on dark matter and dark energy pitched at AS-level students is doomed from the start: none of the interesting mathematics is yet accessible and everything falls apart and becomes a jumble of words.

I was horrified in the following lecture to discover that at least one member of the audience couldn’t tell the time and another didn’t know the speed of light, evidence to support my point about dark energy being a poorly chosen topic for the audience. This next lecture was about time travel and this time, despite the apparently difficult subject matter, the topic was unravelled very skilfully with appropriately chosen and utilised equations. I particularly enjoyed the way the lecturer managed to get the most rowdy member of the audience to volunteer to sit inside a (wire and fabric?) Tardis for five minutes and subsequently declare his experience ‘impressive’ – skilful manipulation on the part of the lecturer and congratulations to her. Again the now *very* familiar Lorentz (I’ll get it right this time) factor appeared (though tragically obscured by the Tardis) to explain forwards travel in time relative to a stationary object. Some of the reasoning was still circular, for example defining the limit of the speed of light as, well, the limit of the speed of light, although to be fair, with the level of mathematics available to members of an audience who cannot tell the time, the Lorentz factor (the reciprocal of a radical, oh horror) was probably already too great a stretch. But overall I thought this lecture was a well thought-out summary of the concepts of time travel and the paradoxes involved (both Grandfather and twins).

After a Tesco lunch (I’m not an M&S snob) we were all made to feel stupid by an engineer demonstrating to us why our brains are rubbish and why we should think laterally. After getting every single question he posed wrong (fine, I exaggerate), I listened intently as he explained the fundamentals of lateral thinking. Lateral thinking is something which is unfortunately not taught or even encouraged at any level in the National Curriculum. Exam questions invariably involve some standard procedure, and if any other method is employed, the poor GCSE / AS / A2 marker will just get confused, have a good head bash and give you zero for that question. I actually distinctly remember being told in English lessons not to try to write something original in the exam – ‘by all means be creative when doing homeworks but just do something standard that ticks all the boxes for the exam’. I feel at this point inclined to thank one of the many variants of the imaginary creator of the universe to get planning permissions for a school as good as mine – I’d be willing to bet that schools which aim for their pupils to attain a C at GCSE level produce very linearly thinking students, so to speak.

The final lecture was by far the most entertaining – a pseudo-magician taking the piss out of real magicians and abusing the sciences, specifically a Van der Graaf generator, a Wimshurst (sp?) machine, a whip and a Barbie doll. What more needs saying?

Overall I felt it a highly stimulating series of lectures. Almost every discipline associated with Physics was covered, from engineering to cosmology to relativity to logical thinking. Although I suspect few people actually learnt anything particularly new and deep from any of the lectures (except perhaps the lateral thinking one), every lecturer had something new and interesting to say, and it was a great way to spend the middle of a week.

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4 Responses to Physics Lectures at the IoE

  1. John says:

    Do you know the names of the lecturers?
    Thanks. :)

  2. Andrew Simmons says:

    Regarding the treatment of the Lorentz factor:

    I suspect that sticking in the Lorentz factor without a step by step description of how it is derived went over the heads of everyone who needed to be told what the Lorentz factor is. I did, however, find the imprisonment of that annoying person inside the tardis to be extremely satisfying.

    (also, i laughed when the guy who didnt know the speed of light couldnt multiply 3 by 1.5)

  3. JosH H says:

    I wouldn’t touch those lectures with a ten foot barge pole.

  4. Bryant Tan says:

    John: Apologies, my memory fails me, a problem compounded by the face that it was some time ago… If I do remember I’ll ping you.

    JosH H: Congratulations, that was the 100th comment! No prizes though. And just because the guy took the piss out of magicians… ;)

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