Constant measures of irrelevance

28th November 1997 at 00:00
I love physics. I think that the study of the subject is relevant, interesting and life-enhancing. It instils in me a sense of wonder and puts into perspective many of our species' achievements and limitations. Since so many moral arguments are concerned with scientific progress, an understanding of aspects of physics should be sought by anyone who intends to philosophise, moralise or politicise (is that the right word?).

When I was a student I listened to many of my peers argue against nuclear power. Most of them had little or no knowledge about the nature of radiation. Some were unable to even pronounce "nookaleer". Don't get me wrong. We desperately need people to argue against (and for) nuclear power, but the arguments must be sound.

As with so much of the curriculum, pupils practise skills and modes of thinking that will stand them in good stead in later life even if they never again have to refer to the knowledge gained.

So I love physics, which is why I find it particularly painful on those occasions when I feel I am helping to switch pupils off the subject. Take my Higher class the other day. We were analysing forces in lifts. Typical questions posed were along the lines of: "A man of mass 80kg stands on a set of scales in a lift which is accelerating upwards at 2 metres per second per second. What is the reading on the scales which are calibrated in Newtons?" I was going over this as a worked example on the board, to be followed by a similar problem where a 1kg bag of sugar was suspended from a spring balance in a lift when something happened. For the first time in 14 years I asked the questions no one had asked before. "Why should someone weigh himself in a moving lift?" Unfortunately, perhaps, I chose to ask it out loud.

The old teachers' ailment of Basil Fawlty Syndrome flared up again and I spent some time sarcastically speculating on people with complexes about their weights who were so concerned that no one else should find out the value of this statistic that they would only measure it in the privacy of an elevator. To account for the bag of sugar scenario, a ragingly eccentric trading standards officer was postulated, one who sneaked off into the lifts of large stores with packets of food and a Newton balance to check that the retailers were not selling short measures.

Now it may be that I am the one shooting my subject in the foot with talk like this. I ought to be pointing out all the stuff about teaching skills and modes of thinking. Maybe I will some day. But I have to ask myself: how often do we feed our Higher pupils what must seem to them to be pages of irrelevant tedium, safe in the knowledge that they are too nice and too mature to object?

Standard grade physics is a good example of a subject that has had a lot of effort put into making it more friendly, approachable, interesting and obviously relevant than its O grade ancestor. In all its incarnations, including Higher Still, Higher physics has put all the onus on making the material relevant, interesting etc on the teacher.

My own class have taken some control of the situation themselves and have begun to suggest their own outlandish situations for dynamics problems.

The last one involved well-hyped children's television characters. Time for Tubby bye-byes ...

Gregor Steele's favourite O grade physics problem featured Kylie Minogue and an elephant.

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