What blows your hair back?

27th November 2009 at 00:00

It could be argued that my major contribution to physics education over the past three years has been to develop a way in which bald men can have fun with Van de Graaff generators.

For those who have to know, it involves charging yourself up while balancing a stack of inverted foil mince pie dishes on your head. A few weeks ago, I did this in front of a group of teachers at the launch of a Curriculum for Excellence initiative. It usually gets a laugh, but that was not the only reason for doing it. If the new curriculum does not have a home for the VdG, I want no part in it.

There is a hell of a lot of good science being taught out there and the day it is replaced completely by web-crawling and computer presentation is the day I hand in my badge, if I haven't had it taken away from me, because there will be no need to research equipment for Scottish schools.

This isn't an argument for no change. Too much science, particularly non- biological science, is presented in such a way that the reaction "who gives a monkey's?" by some pupils is entirely justifiable. Surely even the fiercest critics of the science experiences and outcomes cannot argue that, from the word go, their writers made an honest attempt to address this? There is one on forces, for example, that (rightly) mentions all the physicists' old favourites of Newton's laws and their associated calculations, but relates them to vehicle safety (Yo! Pimp My Trolley!). Everyone knows that vehicle safety matters.

Let's not forget, though, the pupils who get their kicks from understanding a theory or solving a problem using an equation. They may be the ones most likely to be the scientists of tomorrow. The worst possible science course would alienate them without getting the latent scientists who are not motivated in the subject to come out of the closet. A scientifically-literate nation with no scientists? It would be even worse than a course that produced a handful of otherwise competent scientists who had never developed the skills to communicate their work or to assess its ethical implications.

So what are the ethical implications of a VdG generator? Where is its relevance to society? How does it produce confident individuals or responsible citizens? I dare say that, given time, I could come up with something. I'm not going to bother. Sometimes, the best point to make is that we live in a lively, playful universe, full of surprises, full of what looks like trickery until you lift the veil. Van de Graaff generators are damned good fun, even if you are as bald as a baboon's posterior.

Gregor Steele can levitate a dozen pie dishes from his head on a good day.

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