Beam me back to West Lothian

26th August 2005 at 01:00
In the year 2222, in the town of Linlithgow, Montgomery Scott will be born.

Some years later, he will have attained the status of chief engineer on the Starship Enterprise. It is hugely to the credit of the aforementioned West Lothian town that it is considering erecting a plaque to this fictional character following the death of James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty for more than three decades.

Doohan was a Canadian. His Scottish accent was passable in the way that Dick Van Dyke's cockney one wasn't. When Whoopi Goldberg first saw Star Trek, she ran to tell her mother that there was a black woman on television who wasn't a maid. Had I been a little more savvy when I was eight, I might have run to tell my mother that there was a Scotsman on television who wasn't an inebriated football supporter.

Scotty, as an engineer, was a stereotype but he was a positive stereotype.

He beamed people up. His enjins often couldnae take much mair o this. The laws of physics, Scotty opined, were things that "ye cannae change (Captain)". Next time that I am in front of an Advanced Higher class, I must remember to ask them whether they agree with that statement or not. I don't know how I would respond. What is a law of physics? Is it the same as a law of nature, or is one a human interpretation of the other?

Certainly, our knowledge of the laws of physics is changing all the time.

Newton came up with a set that seemed pretty unchangeable. Thanks to Einstein and others, we now know that Newtonian mechanics doesn't work for very small or very fast objects.

"I prefer a subject where I can think for myself," a politics student once said to me. "I like a subject where there's a correct answer," is something that physics teachers have been heard to say. I may even have said it myself, though in reference to the ease of marking a page of problems when compared with an essay.

There is evidence that non-numerical questions are not well answered in physics exams. Many teachers are addressing this by developing such problems for pupils. What seems to be effective is giving them to groups of kids, who then discuss them and report their answers to the rest of the class. It's good to talk.

Meanwhile, here's a question that might be a bit too left field for some: if you were producing a movie about physics, who would you cast as Force, Power and Energy? Would Big Arnie be suitable for all three roles? What is similar about each part? What are the differences?

Answers on a postcard, beamed subspace to me, please.

Gregor Steele would have gone on the five-year mission at any time between the ages of eight and 25.

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