Thursday, December 16, 2010

Why I am not a Physicist

Some old archive in my memory has just been jiggled open while I was listening to a programme on Radio 4.

I spend a large part of my, admittedly far too limited, reading time buried deep inside books about science. I'm quite eclectic in my tastes, quantum mechanics, relativity, particle physics, neuroscience, evolution, astronomy, psychology and so on - from parallel universes to the Large Hadron Collider.

In typical Radio 4 style the programme announcer said, "And now on Radio 4, Off the Page in which Dominic Arkwright and his guests look at the sentence "I don't know" and ask why it is so hard to say for many people and whether that is a good thing" - I mean, come on, is that brilliant or what? In the course of it one of the panellists mentioned how boring physics had been for her at school until one teacher stated that is it the not knowing which drives science on - the concept of I-don't-know-so-let's-find-out.

This turned out to be the password to my memory archive. I have often told the story about how I went from an o-level grade 5 to a grade 2 in the space of one year (fortunately my o-level year). The school used to try and arrange it that classes would have the same teacher for each subject for the three years up to o-level to ensure continuity. For physics we had Mr Scarface... ah, sorry, Mr Jarvis, who did, however, have a pretty prominent scar on his not very pretty face.
His "method" of teaching:

1. Fill three blackboards with text and diagrams before the kids came into the class
2. When the kids came in and sat down, tell them to copy down everything on the board
3. After about ten minutes ask if everyone is finished with the first blackboard and, if so, fill it up with more text and diagrams for copying down
4. Repeat step 3 with the other two blackboards until the double lesson (double!!, lesson!!!) was over
5. Set "learning the notes" as a homework task.

It was basically two double periods a week in how to cope with acute writer's cramp and schoolboy boredom. At the end of the first year of this I had eight physics exercise books full, after the second year, fifteen, after the end-of-summer-term exam, a 5 and a "doesn't seem to be applying himself" comment on my report.

By a stroke of great and liberating fortune and by what must have been a totally insane selection committee, Scarface was chosen to go on a year's teacher exchange with an American school. In his place came Mr Neubaum.

Well, to spoil what could have been a neat balance in my story, we didn't get the American teacher - it was considered too great a risk to give an o-level year class to him, being fresh from the States an'all, so we got Mr Panton who taught... well, I don't really know what he taught - all sorts basically. He would kind of pop up all over the place on the timetable; history, maths, physics, geography - he played basketball (which to us, in Liverpool in the seventies, was like an alien sports form) and he was the head of the school's Philosophy Society.

So, first lesson, three terms before our o-levels, we all sit, quills sharpened - ok, it wasn't that long ago - pens poised, the blackboards bare except for the powdery white residue of some sloppy board wiping by the class before and Mr Panton sitting quite casually on the front desk.

"Is the Earth flat or round?"

Silence for a good few moments.

"Erm, round, sir."

"How do you know?"

Quite a bit more silence, some consternation, a few sidelong glances at fellow class members - is he nuts?

"Erm, saw pictures on the tele, sir."

"Fakes! What if they're all fakes? How do you know the Earth is round, we'd fall off if it was round?"

First glimmerings of realising what he was on about.

Anyway, three terms of Mr Panton's physics, just about three-quarters of an exercise book with notes and a 2 in o-level physics.

What I realised today was the rest of the story. We didn't have a Mr Panton in chemistry or biology. Far from it in fact. In chemistry after a first introductory lesson, which turned out to be no more than an explosive sales pitch, we just ploughed a dull furrow through chemical symbols, valencies and properties of chemical compounds and fucking Bunsen burners and failed experiments and the write-up homework assignments which inevitably followed - "when we added magnesium to the copper compound mixture not a fucking thing happened".

Biology was the dictation equivalent of Scarface's "method". We would frantically copy down texts which the incredibly boring "Old Sprog" would read out to us, helpfully stopping after a sentence like, "the equivalent of the larynx in humans is known as the syrinx in birds" to spell "birds" for us, "B-I-R-D-S".

Now, just thinking about those two subjects and two teachers, I can feel my enthusiasm for science grow grey and dull.

Oh yeah, o-level chemistry - 6 (=scraped pass, 7 is fail); o-level biology - didn't even take it!

And don't get me started on MATHS!!

And yet at home I was, even as a kid, fascinated by science. I had all kinds of electronic kits and astronomy books...

The Radio 4 panel posed the question, "maybe it would be better at school and in other walks of life if people could just say 'I don't know'". For example if a politician could say, we don't know if these ideas will improve things so we'll do a pilot scheme and try them out.

Maybe it would be better, I don't know.