Run that Geiger past me again;Opinion

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
AS A wean I would often, when rummaging in a shed, cupboard or toy box, come across a temporarily forgotten treasure. I cannot pretend that the Scottish Schools Equipment Research Centre falls into quite the same category. For a start, I'm fairly sure the staff don't lurk around in sheds or cupboards, though I may find myself corrected (by e-mail) if I'm wrong.

I've rarely forgotten about the centre's existence. Our subject specialist lecturers at Moray House (put away that crucifix - these guys were OK) took us to visit SSERC. I was wide-eyed at the microprocessor-controlled train sets and the boxes of surplus components for sale. This was Q division, technical powerhouse in the cold war against boring science lessons. Treasure indeed.

A few years into the job, my kindly principal teacher gave me responsibility for Sixth Year Studies physics projects. It was time to rediscover SSERC. Its bulletins proved to be a source of ideas, like the laser communication system a student used to transmit a rock track across the classroom. (I recall the external assessor being po-facedly unimpressed by this. Perhaps he was a mod.)

My most recent contact with the centre was when my employers organised safety training on leakage testing of radioactive sources (morning) and laser safety (afternoon). Hey! Do we physicists know how to party, or what?

The tutor for the day had set up a room full of hands-on experiments, a good omen. He began by pointing out that the way to avoid all the hazards and safety implications associated with radioactive sources was to refrain from using them. So why bother? The man from SSERC switched on a Geiger counter, and placed a source in front of it. Click.

"What is special about that?" he asked. The answer was soon volunteered. The click was triggered by an event occurring within a single atom. All other physics experiments deal with billions of atoms or electrons acting together. Click.

I was wide-eyed again, captivated this time by an idea rather than a train set. Feynman (look him up - he's a physicist who would be a household name had he been a novelist) reckoned the single most important scientific theory he ever learnt was of the particle nature of matter. Click.

The SSERC treasure trove is increasingly available online interactive. I first "got in" through the Scottish Virtual Teacher Centre website but you can now get there directly on It only takes a few mouse strokes to do it, click, click.

Gregor Steele hopes the online service will still feature the funnies that are sneaked into the quarterly bulletin.

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