It’s not often that a DfE publication makes me feel like Kent Brockman, the newsreader from The Simpsons.
This feeling stems from reading the “Use of apparatus and techniques – physics” section from the DfE’s April 2014 Subject Content for AS and A level Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Psychology publication (p.23).
I had the rather novel feeling that it’s actually a sound list: and I, for one, welcome this intervention from our Govean-apparatchik overlords.
Why do I welcome this? Well, I feel that all too often we lose sight of the fact that, at its heart, Physics is, and must remain, a practical subject, the foundation of so much of the modern world.
Miroslav Holub’s poem “A Brief Reflection on Accuracy” paints a haunting and disturbing picture of what could be described as an entirely postmodernist, deconstructed and relativist (rather than relativistic) universe:
A certain soldier
had to fire a cannon at six o’clock sharp every evening.
Being a soldier he did so. When his accuracy was
investigated he explained:
I go by
the absolutely accurate chronometer in the window
of the clockmaker down in the city.
[ . . . ]
Oh, said the clockmaker,
this is one of the most accurate instruments ever. Just imagine,
for many years now a cannon has been fired at six o’clock sharp.
And every day I look at this chronometer
and always it shows exactly six.
[ . . . ]
So much for accuracy.
And fish move in the water, and from the skies
comes a rushing of wings while
Chronometers tick and cannons boom.
Without the grounding supplied by the art and science of measurement, I believe that we would all inhabit a castle-in-the-air universe as outlined above by Holub (whose experiences as an immunological research scientist are said to have influenced much of his poetry).
Is Holub’s nightmarish scenario even a remote possibility? Would we ever be in a world where “chronometers tick and cannons boom” but no-one actually checks the actual time by, say, looking out of the window to see if it’s daylight or not?
As with most nightmares, it’s probably closer than you think: “The sleep of reason brings forth monsters” as Goya suggested, and the steps that produce the monsters are often small, seemingly-harmless compromises of apparently little consequence.
One of my Y13 students, who has been attending a number of interviews for Physics courses, reports that some university departments have told him that “We spend a lot of the first year teaching students how to write formal laboratory reports as we find many of them have not learned how to do this during their A level courses.
Whaaa-aat? I nearly fell off my lab stool when Sam* told me this. In my opinion, that is unconscionable. “Oh, yeah,” Sam went on, “some of the students there said things like ‘Oh, our A level course content makes it unsuitable for practical teaching’.”
Opinions like that, if they genuinely reflect the views of the schoolteachers involved, are steps on the road to bringing forth monsters. Of course, it may not seem like a big deal to either the students or the teachers who are probably following what they see as a reasonable path of little resistance. But it is a big deal, it really is.
“And what did you say, Sam?” I asked.
“I said that we do a formal write up with a full analysis of experimental uncertainties every lesson.”
“Do we, Sam? Every lesson? Really?”
“Yeah, well,” said Sam with a smile, “I lied about that, didn’t I?”
“Exaggerated, Sam. I think you mean exaggerated.”
“Whatever you say, sir,” said Sam.
More on the 12 pracs of Gove in a later post..
* not his real name