Imperial Physics Interview / Religion Debate

Two relatively bloggable things happened yesterday so I’ll make some attempt to reconstruct them here in words.

Imperial Physics Interview

I think I’ll do what Farhan did last year in the spirit of open source (kinda) and say something about my interview.

I arrived at 12:30 in time for the tour after just about managing to find the mysterious room 306 (hidden in a sort of conference room). There was someone who had made it all the way from Poland for this and various people who had made arduous journeys from all over the country, so I almost felt guilty about having had such an easy trip – 20 minutes on the No 10 down HSK. We got given a general walk round and free lunch (always a good thing) and were even (jokingly) offered a pint by the tour guide before our interviews!

The 12 of us with interviews that day were split up into three groups of four – I was interviewed with the three others applying for the four-year ‘Physics with Theoretical Physics’ course. We were first all sat together and had the course run past us – it all sounds pretty awesome with ‘complex analysis’ and ‘mathematical analysis’ both being taught in the first year (GL said once the sign of a good maths course is mathematical analysis being taught in the first year). We all went off for a quick (free) tea session in the lunching area (I was hoping to catch some of the ion trapping people from my work experience but they had probably by then left) during which we discussed relativity and space-time diagrams and the concept of ‘now’ which was pretty interesting.

Then we were all sat outside the room and were called in individually for interview. I was the last (a consequence of alphabetical ordering) and the people who went before me seemed to find it OK – one said she had to sketch ‘some graph’ and explain ‘something physics-ey’ and everyone seemed to have got two questions – so I didn’t think it would be too bad.

So I went in and immediately saw a Newton’s cradle sitting on the desk in front of my interviewer. Her research interest was quantum gravity and was being shadowed by someone who was interested in explosions and generally breaking things Mythbusters style, which is cool. She didn’t mention my personal statement at all and just asked me why I wanted to do physics (as opposed to maths) and why I wanted to go to Imperial. I said I liked being able to see concepts happen in real life, to which she pointed out relativity isn’t exactly the average real life situation. I said something about being able to touch and feel and see stuff in action, and applying maths to stuff and seeing it work, which she seemed satisfied with – ‘I know exactly what you mean’.

She then gestured towards the pad of paper and asked me to differentiate 2^x. Following standard procedure I just rearranged it into e^xln2 and differentiated that, though I didn’t / forgot to turn (ln2)e^xln2 back into (ln2)2^x at the end. She seemed happy and said ‘yup that’s right’ then asked me whether I knew what the thing on the desk was. I successfully identified it as a Newton’s cradle and explained that each collision is elastic and that this results in the inboud ball stopping and the next one going forwards with the same velocity as the inbound one, etc, with some support from a fumbling demonstration.

She then asked me a question about a ping pong ball and a golf ball being dropped such that the former is directly over the latter from 1m, and she asked me how high the ping pong ball would bounce. I invoked the coefficient of restitution and said let the velocity at the bottom be v. Golf ball bounces, goes up with v. Ping pong ball bounces against this, goes up with 3v. Invoking conservation of energy twice the answer came out to be 9m – which was right, apparently. That’s quite high…

She then asked me how long it takes a photon to get from when the universe became transparent to now. I looked confused and for some reason tried to resist the temptation to ask ‘from whose frame of reference?’, though it turned out that’s what the question was asking. I drew a space-time diagram and made a pretty dreadful estimate of the age of the universe [my estimate turned out to be about the age of the earth; note to self: learn some of these numbers sometime…] and asked for clarification on the question. She said it was a trick question and said it’s about frames of reference, at which point I realised it was indeed a relativity question and said ‘zero’ with a slightly botched-up explanation using t = yt’ [note to self: try to remember which side y is on!]. I guess I should have drawn the thing with the axes changing angle on the space-time diagram but nvm…

At the end she said she can’t tell me whether I have an offer and if so it will be with an A* (I *think* I heard that correctly, and it’s possible ‘further maths’ was mentioned in the same sentence – so that was a bit of a surprise). Apparently the school wrote me a good reference, which is good.

EDIT: should probably also say offers/rejections in several weeks

It was all over by 5pm as promised so I had some time to kill before the religion debate at 6:45 (next part of this topically bimodal post).

Intelligence Squared Debate: Religion

More specifically the motion was “The Catholic Church is a force for good in the world”. Matthew, Theo and I, the proud founders of the SPS Sceptic Society, were once again reunited to watch Christopher Hitchens (Writer, broadcaster and polemicist, author of the bestselling book “God is not Great”) and Stephen Fry (Actor, author, comedian and television presenter) debate against Archbishop John Onaiyekan (Roman Catholic Archbishop of Abuja, Nigeria) and Rt Hon Ann Widdecombe (Conservative MP and Catholic convert) (descriptions taken from the I2 page). As always I tried to write some notes – here they are in pretty condensed form. {curly brackets} indicate words external to what the speaker said, e.g. comments. I’ve also abbreviated names slightly, and nothing is word-for-word

1st speaker: Archbishop – For

  • General stuff about his father and him and all his family being Catholic {Matthew suggested this sounded like the start of a sermon}
  • Questioned what sort of ‘force’ the debate was about. He thinks the ‘force’ is a spiritual message, spread around the world, and the force is what this message teaches etc.
  • Comments about the sheer size of the ‘force’
  • Said that if you ask anyone in Nigeria they’ll tell you the Catholic church is a force for good {according to WJB if you ask 80% of people in Europe they’ll tell you that only GM food has DNA…}
  • Quotes statistics about what {I would describe as satisfied customers}
  • {Actually I have to say, it did sound like a sermon}

2nd speaker: Hitchens {to much applause!} – Against

  • Started with some witty banter
  • Said the opposition should have started with a list of apologies {to much applause}
  • Started listing crimes against humanity the Catholic Church has committed {a couple were incorrect I think, and also the debate is the present – lots of his examples were from centuries ago. Still valid though, as we will see later}
  • Child abuse – the church tried to excuse itself for it instead of apologising
  • Said something about antisemitism {lots of audience tuts}
  • Religion goes against the method of free thinking and scepticism
  • Quote’s Stephen Fry’s situation {Fry turned out to be a really strong speaker because of this later}
  • Talked about the ‘sale’ of remuneration – paying for people to pray for you
  • {I thought Hitchens would be stronger – he was, of course, as always pretty harsh and blunt, but he wasn’t as fired up as he was in some of his previous debates}

3rd speaker: MP – For

  • Claims Hitchens misrepresented the Catholic Church {sarcastic applause from Hitchens!}
  • Picked up on Hitchens talking about the past, not present
  • Picked up on antisemitism thing
  • Quotes WWII – helping Jews
  • Quotes christians having to renounce faith to join SS {considering Nazism was pretty anti-christian anyways I don’t think this is a particularly valid point}
  • Torture – last time’s standards were different so everyone was guilty, not just the church {Fry and the audience tear this apart later}
  • Talks about child abuse – church ‘powerless’ to do anything, magistrates etc. also at fault
  • Charity – $Bns given to charity {I wonder how much this is in comparison with the church’s wealth…}
  • Hope argument – church gives hope to people
  • she said ‘I knew condoms would come up’ – tried to make a joke of it {general audience tuts, someone shouted “how dare you laugh at that!”}

4th speaker: Fry – Against

  • Started completely differently from Hitchens – said he’s fine with people believing and seeking enlightenment etc. – shows no hostility towards them
  • Attacked MP’s point about past vs present – MP basically said ‘history is not important, so let’s forget about it’
  • Talked about purgatory, people paying to bypass purgatory / go to heaven; referenced South Park’s version of purgatory (!)
  • Quotes ‘outside the church, there is no salvation’ being used to excuse horrific deeds
  • Church commands people to be ignorant, prevents them thinking for themselves
  • Catholic Church deems itself the only owner of the truth and bullies people into believing
  • Current Pope on child abuse: “We do not have the power of a nation” <- yes you do
  • Commented on women’s equality
  • Apparently the pope wrote a letter / made an announcement to child-abusing priests: [paraphrasing] “do not talk to the police, keep it secret, talk to me instead”. Pope claimed solution is to stop “homosexuals from entering the church”
  • {either Hitchens or Fry made this following point} The church ‘sentenced’ one child-abusing priest to ‘a lifetime of prayer’ instead of several months / years in prison
  • Church doesn’t need to exacerbate existing gay stigma
  • Stephen Fry said: “I find it ridiculous that I am being called a perv by such extraordinarily sexually dysfunctional people” {*huge* applause + laugh, proposition looking really pissed off}
  • Pope spread false lie that condoms makes AIDS spreading worse – instead of making useful suggestions
  • church obsessed with sex. Comparison with food – church equivalent of anorexic and obese {more huge audience support}
  • Proposed solution: pope gives back all of Vatican’s wealth to those from whom the church has stolen {even more audience cheer}

Before the debate the audience had pre-voted thus:
FOR: 678
ABS: 346


  • Catholic Church broke 5 UN conventions on child abuse – should not be allowed to get away with this
  • To Archbishop: Q “which Catholic policy are you most ashamed of?” A “I am ashamed of none of them”
  • To proposition: “do you need the Vatican’s wealth?”
  • To proposition on torture: “even though the standards of the time are xyz, isn’t the truth of the Church doctrine ‘eternal’?”. Church had changed mind on slavery for example. Seems like church in constant state of limbo. MP says “limbo = ‘second light'” – {only huge audience groan in entire debate}


Stephen Fry

  • MP groaning: “I knew condoms etc would be brought up” – a bit like a burglar groaning in court “I knew my burglary would be brought up” {audience cheer}
  • Constantly wasted opportunity for Catholic church to do something by giving away lots of its wealth – until then, not force for good


  • Reason for people having children in Nigeria is they need someone to look after them when they are old {relevance?}
  • Says no statistical evidence for condoms preventing AIDS {so pope justified in spreading lies?? Theo and I agree she’s crazy}


  • Thoughtcrime argument – catholic church essentially enforcing regime of thoughtcrime


  • Basically said history doesn’t matter again {even though point previously successfully rebutted by Fry}
  • Said he cares about his own relatives and he is happy for them to be Catholic etc. {urgh. There were two parents who fed their baby a litre of salt to punish it. I’m sure they cared about their kid, they just didn’t know giving it salt would be a bad idea. This point isn’t really valid.}

After the debate the results were thus:

FOR: 268
ABS: 334 {I think – it might have been 34. Can’t check by adding up since audience size was changing throughout debate}

Stephen Fry was a ridiculously strong speaker in this – even stronger than Hitchens, and despite my weak preconception that the Catholic church wasn’t doing much good, after this debate I am now quite convinced that it’s, if anything, a force for evil. Fry shouted twice (or even thrice) in that – he really is passionate about this topic.

Other highlights include us spotting Derren Brown in the audience and a priest in the audience standing up and totally siding with Stephen Fry.

EDIT: whenever I mention the ‘church’ I mean the Catholic church, just to avoid any confusion. As Fry pointed out, he has nothing against Quakers, for example.


7 Responses to Imperial Physics Interview / Religion Debate

  1. Gideon says:

    Loved the religion debate :)
    What about suppression of the dead sea scrolls, Church turning a blind eye to Nazi regime instead of opposing it… Anti-abortion even in rape cases…
    I don’t think the Catholic Church has done anything good personally, even the charity stuff is a bit fake.
    Anyway… soon we’ll have an atheistic utopia (fingers crossed) so let’s pray for that instead :)

  2. Will says:

    About the golf/ping pong ball – I think you only need nine bouncy balls of the correct weights for the top one to break the escape velocity of the earth, or at least reach the moon. Although lining them up would be a tad tricky…
    Oh, and don’t bother learning ‘which side y is on’ – just remember that the shortest time between two events is that measured by a clock present at both events (‘proper time’), then the y works itself out. Laziness is a virtue!

  3. Thomas Wood says:

    Interviews already?

    Wow. I can remember that…

    (Says me, sitting in an Imperial Hall of Residence)

  4. Byrom says:

    undecideds at the end were 34, which is incredible!!

  5. .._.. says:

    if you think the catholic church is a force for evil, then what is evil?

  6. Arne N. Gjorgov, MD, PhD says:

    Talking so forcefully and confidently about the ‘benefits’ of condom use in the open debate (by Chris Hitchens and Stephen Fry), means not only talking nonsense but also showing ignorance about the subject matter of condom-use adverse effects and utter lack of sensitivity towards British and other women who are exposed to real and the highest risk of developing and suffering of breast cancer as an epidemic disease (the mothers) and the rampant anorexia-bulimia disorders in schoolgirls (the daughters). The ignorance or pretense of ignorance about the grave consequences of the mass condomization of women’s sexuality is apparent of, specifically, the current, excess breast cancer epidemic along with a myriad of accompanying sex- (gender-) specific diseases in females of all ages, in the country and worldwide. More suffering and ill-health is anticipated to ensue due to the deadly false belief of the condom use as a ‘safe’ device for fertility-control and family-planning purposes.
    Arne N. Gjorgov, M.D., Ph.D. (UNC-SPH, Chapel Hill, NC)
    Author of “Barrier Contraception and Breast Cancer,” 1980: x+164

  7. Arne, what data do you have to support your claims? You appear do be the only proponent of the idea that condom use contributes to breast cancer. Others offer data, from larger studies than yours, indicating that condom use does not increase risk of developing breast cancer (see J R Soc Med. 1994 Sep;87(9):570).

    Given the strength of evidence showing that condoms offer protection against the sexual transmission of HIV, promoting as weakly-evidenced a claim as yours has the potential to do enormous harm.

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