Thursday, April 30, 2009

ZenTiger The next Einstein wont be British

The next Einstein probably wont be British. Or a Kiwi. OK, so neither was the first, but there have been many famous British Scientists. Maybe not so many in the future though. But before I can tell you that story, I thought I'd mention this one:

Angels on a Pin - A Modern Parable
by Alexander Calandra
Saturday Review, Dec 21, 1968 (pg 60)
and from "More Random Walks in Science" by R.L.Weber, The Institute of Physics, 1982.

Some time ago I received a call from a colleague who asked if I would be the referee on the grading of an examination question. He was about to give a student a zero for his answer to a physics question, while the student claimed he should receive a perfect score and would if the system were not set up against the student: The instructor and the student agreed to submit this to an impartial arbiter, and I was selected.

I went to my colleague's office and read the examination question: "Show how it is possible to determine the height of a tall building with the aid of a barometer."

The student had answered: "Take a barometer to the top of the building, attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street and then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building."

I pointed out that the student really had a strong case for full credit since he had answered the question completely and correctly. On the other hand, if full credit was given, it could well contribute to a high grade for the student in his physics course. A high grade is supposed to certify competence in physics, but the answer did not confirm this. I suggested that the student have another try at answering the question I was not surprised that my colleague agreed, but I was surprised that the student did.

I gave the student six minutes to answer the question with the warning that the answer should show some knowledge of physics. At the end of five minutes, he had not written anything. I asked if he wished to give up, but he said no. He had many answers to this problem; he was just thinking of the best one. I excused myself for interrupting him and asked him to please go on. In the next minute he dashed off his
answer which read:

"Take the barometer to the top of the building and lean over the edge of the roof. Drop that barometer, timing its fall with a stopwatch. Then using the formula S=½at², calculate the height of the building.

At this point I asked my colleague if he would give up. He conceded, and I gave the student almost full credit.

In leaving my colleague's office, I recalled that the student had said he had many other answers to the problem, so I asked him what they were. "Oh yes," said the student. "There are a great many ways of getting the height of a tall building with a barometer. For example, you could take the barometer out on a sunny day and measure the height of the barometer and the length of its shadow, and the length of the shadow of the building and by the use of a simple proportion, determine the height of the building."

"Fine," I asked. "And the others?"

"Yes," said the student. "There is a very basic measurement method that you will like. In this method you take the barometer and begin to walk up the stairs. As you climb the stairs, you mark off the length of the barometer along the wa]l. You then count the number of marks, and this will give you the height of the building in barometer units. A very direct method."

"Of course, if you want a more sophisticated method, you can tie the barometer to the end of a string, swing it as a pendulum, and determine the value of `g' at the street level and at the top of the building. From the difference of the two values of `g' the height of the building can be calculated."

Finally, he concluded, there are many other ways of solving the problem. "Probably the best," he said, "is to take the barometer to the basement and knock on the superintendent's door. When the superintendent answers, you speak to him as follows: "Mr. Superintendent, here I have a fine barometer. If you tell me the height of this building, I will give you this barometer."

At this point I asked the student if he really did know the conventional answer to this question. He admitted that he did, said that he was fed up with high school and college instructors trying to teach him how to think, using the "scientific method," and to explore the deep inner logic of the subject in a pedantic way, as is often
done in the new mathematics, rather than teaching him the structure of the subject. With this in mind, he decided to revive scholasticism as an academic lark to challenge the Sputnik-panicked classrooms of America.


I noticed two recent articles about the changing demographics of science degrees. The first was broadly that 1 in 5 degrees in the UK are going to overseas students. The second was that the number of science degrees had fallen dramatically, even as places like China and Singapore reflect a rise. I can't find the link, which is a pity because the falling numbers were indeed dramatic. Combine the fall in science degrees with an increase in degrees going to foreign students and it's a fair call to suspect the next Einstein wont be from Birmingham or Leeds. No offence intended.

Interestingly, I noticed the UK based Institute of Physics had "re-engineered" their physics degrees to move away from the theoretical to the practical application of physics in the business world. They were calling this Integrated Physics. I'm not sure if that is a symptom or a response.

So whilst the above parable was interesting, it made me wonder if the creativity required in Physics has been consistently beaten out of the new and aspiring physicists, as knowledge is packaged up and streamlined for mass consumption?

A quick flick through physics blogs and forums seems to indicate otherwise - there will always be those truly enraptured by the thrill of discovery and a glimpse into the workings of the Universe. Although perhaps those numbers are far smaller than they could be?

I've been immersed in Einstein recently (well, as much as a physics ignoramus can be) and it's absolutely fascinating to notice connections to his work and thoughts in all sorts of areas, as well as obviously his work itself. But before I can tell you that story, I thought I'd just mention this one above.

Related Link: UK getting dumber by degrees

3 comment(s):

KG said...

Interesting. But I seem to recall Einstein saying that formal teaching had little to do with great discoveries in physics--that they were almost always 'intuitive leaps' and often utterly unrelated to the work at hand.
or perhaps that was just the way his mind worked.

Anonymous said...

Falling science enrolments & graduate numbers i more to do with the lack of (paying) jobs in the field that anything else. I've just farewelled 2 friends back to Europe for 1 to take up a job there - 7 years in physics here in NZ did not yield a permanent job for either, despite much hard slog and results (and in a 'fashionable' area of physics too).

The Chinese students will learn in time. At the moment, they are keen to learn science to help build the nation, and because the small number of science grads have been gobbled up. Bigger numbers in a global recession will give a different long term trend.

The next Einstein will probably be like the last - having to eke out a living in a semi-related job (at best) while doing their science as a hobby... sad, but increasingly true.

John Duffield said...

Hi guys. I am British. But what squaredrive said is bang on. The fresh eyes are those of an outsider. I'm a computer science graduate with a lifelong interest in fundamental physics. The unified model came out of an analysis of mathematical terms. Until you know what things like E m and c and C actually represent, you're just shuffling the deck. See The reviews are by professional physicists. If you want to ask me anything go ahead.

Post a Comment

Please be respectful. Foul language and personal attacks may get your comment deleted without warning. Contact us if your comment doesn't appear - the spam filter may have grabbed it.