Category Archives: Humour

When Harold Met William

Legend has it that in 1988, U.S. Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis opened an election rally in front of a huge crowd in a red state with the ringing words: “This joke will appeal to the Latin scholars amongst you…” He went on to lose decisively to George H. W. Bush.

On that note, this joke will appeal to all the Physics teachers (and other aficionados of the dot-and-cross convention).

Harold

For the non-physicists amongst you, this is an illustration of the dot-and-cross convention, which allows us to represent 3D objects on a 2D diagram. The dot represents a vector emerging out of the plane of the paper (think of an arrow coming towards you) and the cross represents a vector directed into the plane of the paper (think of an arrow going away from you).

520px-VFPt_Solenoid_correct2.svg

A solenoid (electromagnet) represented using the dot-and-cross convention. From http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Solenoid

I’ll get my coat…

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Room 808

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/costi-londra/3989596804

MiniEd: the Ministry of Education, Airstrip One, Oceania

It was a warm but overcast day in late August and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Mr Winston Smith, Principal of the Victory G+MINDSET Academy (formerly the Bogstannard Comprehensive School), woke to find himself lying on something that felt like a camp bed, except that it was higher off the ground and it seemed that he was fixed down in some way so that he could not move. Light that seemed stronger than usual was falling on his face.

He gasped as he realised that the infamous MiniEd interrogator, “Grammar School” O’Greening, was standing at his side, looking down at him intently. At the other side of him stood a man in a white coat, tapping an iPad.

“Tell me, Winston,” said O’Greening gently, but with a chilling undercurrent of steel in her voice, “how many buckets am I holding up?”

Winston swallowed fearfully as he realised that he had been deposited by mysterious forces into the deepest bowels of the dreaded MiniEd. 

“Erm…two?” he quavered. The two buckets had “EBacc”and “More bloody EBacc” scrawled on them in crayon.

There were a couple of muffled metallic clangs as O’Greening did a rapid double take. “Nick!” she hissed furiously through clenched teeth. The other man ran to join her. He groaned as he strained to lift a third bucket. “Why do I always have to do the Maths and English bucket? It’s sodding well double-weighted, you know…” he muttered resentfully.

O’Greening ignored him. “How many buckets, Winston?”

“Three! I see three buckets!”

The man let the third bucket drop with an explosive gasp and rubbed his tired arms. “Thank God for that! We had that Sir Ken Robinson in here last week. Kept claiming that he could see a fourth bucket called ‘Unleashing Children’s Inner Demiurgic Muse’. I thought my arms were going to fall off…”

“Comrade Gibb!” snapped O’Greening. The man lapsed into sullen but acquiescent silence. “Now, Winston,” she said sweetly, “from whom have we taken our maths mastery pedagogy? From whom have always taken our maths mastery materials?”

Winston locked his dry lips nervously. “Eastasia…we get our maths mastery materials from Eastasia…” O’Greening nodded encouragingly​. “… but up until a couple of years ago, of course, we were encouraged — well, ordered, actually — to get them from Eurasia instead…”

Gibb had stuck his fingers in his ears and was humming “La la la! Not listening! La la la!”

O’Greening glowered at Winston. “Lies! Delusion! Comrade Gibb: take him to . . . Room 808!”

“Erm, this is Room 808, ma’am.”

“Oh. Then fetch me . . . the school’s RAISEonline report!”

Gibb placed the iPad so that it filled the trembling Winston’s entire field of vision.

“Currently, I have a ‘good pass’ set to ‘4’,” she said conversationally. Actually, thought Winston, it didn’t look too bad. The screen was mostly green with only the odd patch of blue. 

Image from https://johntomsett.com/page/21/?archives-list=1

“Now observe what happens as I now define a ‘strong pass’ as a ‘5’!” O’Greening twisted the dial from 4 to 5.

Winston screamed as the entire screen turned blue. “Arrgh! Don’t do it to us! Do it to another school! DO IT TO ANOTHER SCHOOL!”

O’Greening and Gibb patted him on the shoulder. “Oh, we will. We most certainly will.”

They left Winston Smith alone in Room 808. Tears ran down his face, but he smiled quietly to himself as he stared at the screen. Students, happiness, staff, well-being, people — none of that mattered any more. He had finally won the battle against himself. He loved Big Data.

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Still Working Away In Our Silos (Thank Goodness)

If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.

–G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong With The World (1910)

Why are teachers beavering away in their individual silos, each one of us spending hours reinventing each pedagogic wheel, crafting schemes of work and resources for the new GCSEs?

Wouldn’t life be so much easier and better if we simply shared…?

To which I say: NO!

To be honest, my favourite part of the job is designing, crafting and re-designing resources and teaching approaches. They’re not perfect, of course. I’m reminded of a line from the opening credits of South Park: “All celebrity voices are impersonated . . . poorly.” As Chesterton remarked, if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.

But the point is, my approaches and resources are a lot less imperfect than they used to be. I flatter myself that, over the years, some of them have become . . . quite good. I believe Michael Stipe once said that in the entire history of the world there were only ever five rock and roll songs; and that REM could play two of them quite well. There’s a parallel in that most teachers have a lesson or two (or three) that they — and they alone — can teach brilliantly.

I often think that, given the right context, most students prefer shabby, bespoke individualism rather than shiny mass-produced perfection.

As teachers, I think we sometimes overestimate the impact that we have on our students. There is no royal road to learning, and neither can all our craft and pedagogic arts construct a conveyor belt either.

As educators, the most we can hope to do is clear a few stones out of the way of our charges as they set out on the rocky path to learning.

In the end, the journey is theirs. Let us wish them well as we watch from our silos . . .

The difficulty of obtaining knowledge is universally confessed [ . . .] to reposite in the intellectual treasury the numberless facts, experiments, apophthegms and positions, which must stand single in the memory, and of which none has any perceptible connexion with the rest, is a task which, though undertaken with ardour and pursued with diligence, must at last be left unfinished by the frailty of our nature.

Samuel Johnson, The Idler, 12 January 1760

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Brownian Motion, Staff Rooms and Bromeliads

Individuals aren’t naturally paid-up members of the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian motion of society, which is a mechanism by which human beings constantly remind one another that they are…well…human beings.

— Terry Pratchett, Men At Arms

Happiness is . . . not having an office.

I had a job once where I had an office. It was a quite a nice office. And I had it all to myself. It was a quiet, pleasant little space with a small kitchen nearby. It even had natural daylight through a large window Perfect, you might think.

But I grew to hate that office. You see, I think that teachers — more than anyone, perhaps — need, occasionally, to be “bounced around by the Brownian motion of society”. 

What is Brownian motion? Well, it was first observed by botanist Robert Brown in 1827, who noted that, under a microscope, pollen grains in water seemed to “jiggle” randomly. Brown at first assumed that this motion was due to the “life force” of the pollen grains; however, he dispensed with this idea when he saw particles of stone dust (reportedly taken from the Great Pyramid to make sure they were completely and utterly devoid of life) perform the same drunken, wiggly waltz that came to be known as Brownian motion.

And there the matter rested, for a while. And then in 1905, a young patents clerk, working in his spare time at a kitchen table in a very modest apartment in Geneva, suddenly discovered the explanation — and more, much more.

The patents clerk’s name was, of course, Albert Einstein. His explanation rested on the insight that the visible pollen or dust particles were being buffeted by invisible water particles. His mathematical analysis was not only the first verifiable evidence of the actual physical existence of atoms, but also established their size. Understanding the movement and nature of the unobservable by minute and careful scrutiny of the observable…

Looking back at the job with its own office, I think I missed the simple daily dose of teacherly Brownian motion that you get by simply stepping into a staff room. Are you a little too-full-of-yourself-by-half? Some friendly ego-puncturing banter is usually on tap. At your wit’s end with a difficult student or class? A sympathetic shared eye-roll can work wonders. Plus there might even a few good ideas thrown in for good measure.

A good school staff room is not always synonymous with a “good” school, but a good staff room can make even a “bad” school bearable — enjoyable, even! — and the lack of one can make even an “outstanding” school feel like a souless and joyless treadmill.

If you are being interviewed by more than one school, choose the one that has the beat-up, well-used furniture in the staff room, replete with dirty coffee mugs and tottering piles of unmarked marking whose lower layers are being spontaneously formed into sedimentary rock by the crushing pressure from above.

Sadly, I feel that that this type of staff room is a vanishing phenomenon. I suppose that I am like a dinosaur complaining that bromeliads these days don’t taste as nice as the bromeliads they had in the old days.

Teachers today just aren’t rubbing elbows as much as they used too. H’mmm. Maybe that’s why we don’t have to wear elbow patches any more…

But that does not detract from this universal truth that should, I feel, be more universally acknowledged: if a staff room is suspiciously neat and clean and looks like an airport lounge…RUN AWAY!

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It’s Not All Relative: Five Things That Einstein Never Said

We have all done it, haven’t we? Each and every one of us has, at some point, appropriated (or misappropriated) a quotation from a great thinker or writer to lend a spurious profundity to our own footling little thoughts.

While it may be well-nigh irresistible to wrap ourselves in the borrowed robes of literary or scientific genius, the temptation is fraught with dangers. To spare both our own blushes and those of our unsuspecting audience, it’s a good idea to check whether the Great Person actually said what they are reputed to have said.

For one reason and another, the life, career and reputation of Albert Einstein makes him an especially tempting target for spurious attributions.

This is my eclectic list of five things that Einstein did NOT say, and yet seem to be quoted and requoted again and again, especially in an educational context.

It is a melancholy truth that these particular memes will most likely be circulating on the internet until the last router rusts away to nothingness. However, on the principle that it better to light a candle than complain about the dark, I present this list (although, given their preternatural persistence, a flamethrower might be more appropriate).

Watch out, any one of them may well be coming to a CPD near you sometime soon…

Nein-stein No. 1

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

This, according to Quote Investigator [QI 1], was first attributed to Einstein as recently as 2004. The original allegory about animals attending a school and being judged against inflexible criteria, can be traced back to physicist Amos E. Dolbear who published it under a pseudonym in 1898.


Nein-stein No. 2

Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.

Philosophy this gem certainly isn’t. Sadly, it bears no relation to any recognisable form of Physics either. (“Pass the bag labeled ‘New Age Quantum Claptrap’ please, Alice.”)

The original form of this quotation was penned by special effects artist Darryl Anka in 1998 — forty years after Einstein had shuffled off this mortal coil (or, at least, had become significantly less ordered).

Incidentally, Anka never attempted to attribute this thought to Einstein. In fact, he claimed that it had been obtained via “trans-dimensional channelling” from an extraterrestrial entity named “Bashar”. [QI 2]


Nein-stein No. 3

Two things inspire me to awe: the starry heavens and the moral universe within.

A beautiful quote, but Einstein? Naaaah. From Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason (1788), actually. Highbrow enough for ya? [Ref 1]


Nein-stein No. 4

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Not Einstein. Not Benjamin Franklin. Not Rita Mae Brown either. The earliest instance tracked down by Wikiquote was from a Narcotics Anonymous publication from 1981.


Nein-stein No. 5

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity. Actually, I’m not sure about the universe.

Einstein may or may not have said this, but the only evidence we have is from the works of therapist Frederick S. Perls, who credited the quote to a “great astronomer” in a book published in 1947. In later works, Perls specifically named Einstein as the originator of the quote which was said during a personal meeting with Perls. However, Perls did present different versions of the statement over the years. [QI 3]

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The F.B.I. and Gang Signs for Physicists

Those notions which are to be collected by reason . . . will seldom stand forward in the mind, but lie treasured in the remoter repositories of memory, to be found only when they are sought.

— Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, 7 April 1759

Sir John Ambrose Fleming (1849-1945) was the inventor of the thermionic valve, devices that formed the glowing (literally!) and pulsing heart of most electronic circuits until the invention of the transistor in the 1960s and the dawn of the Age of Semiconductors.

His part in most GCSE and A-level courses is small in extent but of significant and perhaps under acknowledged importance: he is the original framer of Fleming’s Left Hand Rule and Fleming’s Right Hand Rule. These respectively predict the direction of the force produced on a current-carrying conductor in a magnetic field (left hand) and the direction of induced current flow when a conductor cuts magnetic field lines (right hand). In short, they summarise the physics of everything from the humble electric motor to the Large Hadron Collider via the rail gun; not to mention the giant spinning generators that produce the humming electrical essence that powers our civilisation.

To use the rules, hold your thumb and first two fingers at right angles to each other. I tell my students that the left hand rule and right hand rule are physicists’ gang sign — it’s not too great a stretch of the imagination, at that. If you have ever invigilated a Physics exam, you can tell the point when the students have reached the Fleming’s Left/Right Hand Rule question . . . just look at their hands!
image

But I digress. I began this post because I was taught the following mnemonic for FLHR:

And to be honest, I have passed it on without thinking too hard about it. However, a student recently introduced me to the F.B.I. Mnemonic. Start with your thumb and say “F for force”, first finger and say “B for B-field” and then second finger and say “I for current”.

The great advantage of this is that F, B and I are the standard physical symbols for the quantities they represent, unlike the multistage hoop-jumping demanded by the traditional mnemonic.

I don’t know about you, but I think I will be using the FBI mnemonic from now on (which, incidentally, was developed by Robert Van De Graaff (1901-1967), of Van De Graaff generator fame).

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Safe Space

[Being a satire partly inspired by university campus “safe space” policies and this.]

The Roman Inquisition recently posted this message on their Facebook page:

The Roman Inquisition Society stands in solidarity with the Geocentric Society. We support them in condemning the actions of the Astronomy Society in extending an invitation to Professor Galileo Galilei to speak on campus, and agree that hosting known geocentrophobes at our university creates a climate of hatred.

image

Galileo Facing The Roman Inquisition by Cristiano Banti

A spokesman for the Roman Inquisition Society told us that the publication of Galileo Galilei’s new book Dialogue On The Two Chief World Systems showed that Professor Galilei, was “nothing but a reactionary Heliocentrist of the worst stripe”.

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Frontispiece of Dialogue On The Two Chief World Systems

The spokesman went on to say that an event where Professor Galilei would be able to speak “uninterrupted and unopposed, possibly for several whole minutes, on the supposed ‘reality’ of the Earth’s motion around the Sun” would be in direct contravention of stated Student Union policy which does not grant a platform for speech which could be interpreted as being “disruptive to social and community harmony”.

He closed by saying that: “Whilst we in the geocentrist community have always welcomed debate and challenge, it must be within the context of a positive conceptual framework, such as that put forward by that nice Professor Harry Stottle. After all, freedom of speech is all well and good, but don’t we geocentrists deserve our safe space too?”

Members of the Astronomy Society said that they had invited both the Roman Inquisition Society and the Geocentric Society to observe the moons of Jupiter through a telescope, but representatives of both societies had declined by sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting “La-la-la! Not listening! La-la-la!”

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