Farting ticker-timers a thing of the past

7th September 2007 at 01:00
When not trying to decipher Richard Jobson's lyrics, I am often to be found listening to downloaded radio comedy during my commute Fifewards.

One favourite is The Now Show, whose stars Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis once said something very profound on tele-vision. They were doing a two-hander where they gave thumbnail sketches of each of the sciences. Their description of my discipline went something like this: "Physics is all about taking streams of particles, accelerating them to massive speeds, colliding them and creating strange, exotic matter. Or it's watching a block of ice melt in a bucket for an hour."

A lot of my school physics was of the ice-in-a-bucket sort. Farting ticker timers made dots on sticky paper, which the neds up the back of the class stuck to benches to make race tracks for dynamics trolleys. After 85 minutes of trying to analyse the dots, we would be given a note on what we should have found out.

It is still possible to buy a ticker-timer, but nobody I know still uses them. In my job, I get to work with the most up-to-date apparatus available for schools. Some of it is not cheap. I have been testing a device called a spectrophotometer that costs more than my annual budget was when I was a principal teacher.

Having said that, it arguably does more for the money than a ticker-timer, because it actually works. To bring a physics department into the 21st century that is, to the standard where apparatus doesn't look like it belongs in a Hovis advert when compared with a computer suite would take tens of thousands of pounds.

The point is that this is do-able if the will exists at a national level, and that this time of curricular reform is the time to do it. Perhaps the new government might see updating 400 school science departments as a way of celebrating a nation's scientific heritage?

What is the alternative? An pound;800 annual departmental budget, of which pound;500 will be spent on photocopying, pound;50 on stationery and some on repairs, replacement text books and batteries. At the end of the year, there might just be enough left for a nice class set of plastic buckets and a handful of cheap stopwatches.

Gregor Steele reckons he became a physicist in spite of, rather than because of, school physics experiments

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