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Why seeing is believing

Julian Hamm says that he created furryelephant because: "I've always been interested in misunderstandings and people often come to physics with pre-conceived ideas."

The name furryelephant came out of a misunderstanding he heard years ago on the radio.

"It was about blind people who had visited a zoo," he explains. "One man had touched an elephant and was surprised because he had thought elephants were furry. If you don't tell people the whole story they fill in the gaps."

Julian gives the example of switching on a light. It happens instantly, so people assume the electricity travels at the speed of light when it actually flows quite slowly.

"There are two major problems with electricity," says Julian. "It is invisible and there are misunderstandings."

So a couple of years ago, he bought a laptop computer and taught himself to make flash animations.

"The animations are new and no one had done anything like it before," he says.

The key to teaching electricity is to start from visual ideas and then progress to mathematical ideas seamlessly, he adds.

Julian describes his software as a labour of love and estimates that he spent around 1,000 hours during his holidays creating the 500 or so pages that make up the furryelephant title.

He also worked with two ex-students, Robert Shilston and Andrew Betts, who helped him with technical aspects such as programming and with the website design.

Julian is keen to stress that furryelephant is a teaching aid and not a modelling or revision tool. It can be used for projects involving the whole class or by individual students, who can work through topics by themselves.

"I wouldn't recommend more than 20 minutes for this though," he says.

Julian thinks furryelephant will prove to be particularly useful for non-specialists who teach physics.

Meanwhile, his summer holiday will be a busy one as he aims to produce a comprehensive set of teaching notes and activity sheets, ready for the autumn term.

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