Work of friction rubbed off

3rd December 2010 at 00:00

In the Canterbury Tales of my life, my physics tutor at teacher training college was one of the knights. His name was Arthur Gibbons and, sadly, he is no longer around. At the time of my training, it was a commonly-held belief that anyone who worked in teacher education was a useless twit full of airy-fairy ideas who wouldn't last 10 minutes in a classroom. In the case of Arthur, this was definitely not the case.

Legend tells of the time he was sitting in on a crit lesson on radioactivity. The student had a radioactive source and detector set up about 10 centimetres apart. The source was designed to give out a type of radiation that is absorbed by a thin sheet of paper. The student placed one between it and the detector. No change in the reading. Two sheets. No drop. Three. A jotter. Two jotters. War and Peace. Well, perhaps not War and Peace, but clearly, the radiation was not being absorbed by any reasonable thickness of paper.

The student shrugged, turned to his class and said: "Well, we physicists have a saying. If it doesn't work, it's due to friction."

The source had a very low activity, but even had it been a kilogramme of weapons-grade plutonium, its emissions would have been less debilitating than the glare from Arthur Gibbons. At the end of the lesson, he is reputed to have told the trainee that, should he ever give such a poor impression of physics again, Arthur would personally ensure he was never registered with the GTC. If you want to know why the experiment was never going to work properly with a 10-centimetre gap between the source and detector, ask a physicist.

This is not to suggest that Arthur Gibbons was a humourless would-be terminator of hapless students. After crits where the student hadn't given the impression that physics was a discipline where the practical work was habitually rendered ineffectual by the gremlin of friction, he would sit down with the trainee, suck air through his teeth and ask: "Well, Gregor, how do you think that went?" A realistic self-evaluation led to helpful advice and a good-natured dialogue about what the next steps should be.

My first teaching practice was not all I had hoped it would be. The kindly principal teacher at the rural school didn't really think I was cut out for the job. I went to see Arthur. He came up with a plan to send me to a school which, on paper, looked like the worst in Edinburgh, in the heart of what would become Trainspotting country. In fact, it was an excellent school and, while I emerged far from the finished product (hell, I wasn't even the finished product after 25 years), I came out far more able to do my job than when I went in.

Arthur left Moray House to go to the exam board of its day. I met him at one of its events the last time Higher physics was revamped. I took the chance to thank him for his part in things working out in the end - though, had they not, I suppose I could always have blamed friction.

Gregor Steele blamed heat loss on the surroundings in some of his experiments.

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