Raiders of the lost lab, part 2

14th April 2006 at 01:00
A fortnight ago, I wrote here about an experiment I nicked from the Association for Science Education conference. Today, I am going to do the same with an anecdote from one of the keynote speeches.

But first, to Tinto Hill and a strange notion that occurred to me as I descended, red of lug, from a brisk climb on a cold day. Dropping below the snow line, I began to think of Newton's three laws of motion, known to physicists as Newton I, Newton II and Newton III. The nomenclature reminded me of Hollywood blockbusters and I began to draw parallels.

Newton I - revolutionary, though openly acknowledging the work of Italian director Galileo, hence the famous "shoulders of giants" line in the closing credits. Newton II - like most sequels, rather dry and formulaic.

Newton III - as refreshing as the original, with a bit of humour thrown in.

Newton III is the slapstick law - for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. It is the reason why you fall off a surfboard if you try to shoot a clay pigeon at the same time as you ride a wave (see the opening sequence of the film Top Secret).

These may sound like haverings induced by overexertion and incipient hypothermia, so let's turn to the aforementioned anecdote instead. It comes from Professor Brian Boyd, to whom I apologise if I get any of the details wrong. In the days of the enormous regions in Scotland, one of the largest decided to audit its curriculum materials to ensure that all genders and races were properly represented in any images therein.

The group charged with looking at the physics materials was able to report back positively because it did not feature a single picture of a human being.

I laughed. I cringed. I mourned once more the separation of the science and the story. This goes beyond having "real life" examples, of studying "physics through applications", as was Standard grade's intent. These approaches are motivating but children can also be engaged when the development of science is presented as a tale of human endeavour.

There are goodies, baddies, friends, rivals, eccentric loners, team players, Newton and his cat flaps, James Joule taking a thermometer on his honeymoon (to measure the temperatures at the top and bottom of waterfalls, before you ask), James Clerk Maxwell and his poetry, Einstein and his socks.

They should make a blockbuster film about it, or at least a curriculum for excellence. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the science lab . . .

Gregor Steele fancies climbing Schiehallion, the mountain where Maskelyne set up his famous experiment to weigh the Earth.

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