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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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Physics on tour: Coloma Convent Girl’s School

The trip to East Croydon’s Coloma Convent Girl’s School last week was a great success despite being very limited by time. I was delighted to find that the group of A level students I was talking to agreed with me that physics was “difficult but interesting”. I decided to demonstrate why it is worth the effort. To do this, I attempted to show them what it feels like to work as, and think like, a physicist.

First I gave them an introduction to particle physics experiments, (the physics they look at and the physics needed to make them work). There were alot of things they were either learning or about to learn, such as electric and magnetic fields, put into the context of something bigger and more dramatic (accelerating particles to close to the speed of light and controlling their paths!). There was also alot of new information, but they weren’t phased fazed (;-)). They had some interesting questions and it was very fun talking to them.

I tried to emphasise the idea behind fundamental science. Whilst it has had a large impact on the world through its technological developments and applications (for example, particle physics brought the WWW, and is used in hospitals for things like PET scans…), it really isn’t this which motivates the scientists, but simply the craving to understand the world a little more. Incredibly useful, world-changing applications for fundamental discoveries and their technologies are common, but to the scientist this is a somewhat irrelevant bonus. Feynman made this point quite clearly;

The work is not done for the sake of application. It is done for the excitement of what is found out. It is almost impossible for me to convey in a lecture this important aspect, this exciting part, the real reason for science. You cannot understand science and its relation to anything else unless you understand and appreciate the great adventure of our time. You do not live in your time unless you understand that this is a tremendous adventure and a wild and exciting thing.

I gave the students a few challenging problems, so they could feel the addictive enjoyment of solving them. Most were physics-related, some were not. I have given an example below. I wanted to illustrate the various challenges one faces often as a physicist, such as the problems which defy instinct, those which require your judgement and to have a feel for what makes sense, and those which at first seem impossible. One of these came as a surprise to the students: the need to communicate effectively. I had two students explain as best they could, after some discussion and thought, the concepts behind the Baked Alaska and the classic “walking on custard” as seen on Brainiac. The ability to express complex ideas clearly is a very important skill in physics, and they did very well! I hope to show just how important it is soon, as this week Birmingham University is holding the IOP nuclear conference, and tomorrow I am giving a talk about my work.

I was particularly impressed with the students’ ability to approach a problem logically once they had given their instinctive answer. This was the whole point of the exercises – our instinct is so often wrong (for the teachers, for me, for everyone!) but when the physics is known we can find out what is really going on. The giant yoyo demonstrated this very well, and I have donated it to them in exchange for some sweets 🙂 I hope to explain some of the counter-intuitive behaviour of the particle world soon.

I also hope that I can answer some of the burning questions the students still had when I unfortunately had to leave for Cheltenham (Awaiting Approval played a gig there!) However, please, if anyone reading this has questions, fire away! 🙂

For now though, here is an example of the non-physics problems I gave the students (and teachers!) at Coloma to think about:

A man visits his friend for a cup of tea and they are chatting. He asks, “How old are your three children?” The friend replies, “If you multiply their ages, you get 36. If you add them you get the number on my front door.”

The man thinks for a while, finishes his tea, thinks some more, and gets confused. He goes home, and continues to think, but he just can’t work it out. Eventually, he goes back to his friend and says, “I need another clue.” His friend tells him, “Well, my eldest is a boy. Does that help?” With that, the man is able to state the three ages.

What are the three ages?

Answer next time.