Thursday, 26 March 2009

To work with or against the government?

Last week I wrote about the new GCSEs and how my son was able to get a decent score in a paper through general knowledge and a bit of simple grammar. The meeting I then attended, to discuss these papers was interesting, but it was run under Chatham House Rule so I'm not free to discuss what happened. However the idea is to use the information gathered to sit down with the government and its representatives and persuade them (if needs be - it might be that the meeting concludes that all is well) of a new path to follow. So rather than 'publicise and shame' which might make people defensive, it's 'sit down and talk'.

The evening after the meeting I went to the opera to see Dr Atomic, John Adams' take on the Manhattan Project. A key idea in this is that the scientists collaborated with the government, giving them what they wanted and allowing those in Washington to make the big decisions - given the information, they can be trusted to do what's right, they can make the political judgements. Looking back it is easy to condemn those scientists for their part in the project and their easy, passive guilt in working with the authorities rather than speaking out or refusing to collaborate.

I keenly felt the irony of that moment and wondered if we shall be seen as the generation of teachers who collaborated to bring about the end of good science in the UK. Or will history see us as the concerned and active teachers who pushed the government at the right moment? Or will the new GCSEs actually turn out to be the saviours of science, in spite of the naysayers in the independent school system? Who can tell?

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The new science GCSES

I've been asked to be part of a team looking into the quality of the new GCSE exams - seeing if they match up to the specs, if they are demanding enough etc. As part of my homework the Royal Society sent me a set of last summer's OCR Gateway papers to try.

I had a look at them and then thought I'd do an experiment. I gave the first foundation tier science paper to my son to do. Zach is 8, is in year 3 at school and almost knows what science is. I did have to read some of the longer words for him and I took oral rather than written answers (he hates writing). The paper consists of 20 marks for each of biology, chemistry and physics. Zach scored 12/20, 11/20,10/20 respectively giving 33/60 and a creditable D grade (37 for a C grade, the highest achievable on a foundation tier paper). The average mark for this paper nationally was 31.6/60, slightly below Zach's score.

Is this a case of fantastic genes, inherited from two parents with PhDs in physics? Maybe, but nothing in his school work suggests he's going to grow up as a man with a computerised voice in a wheelchair, or a fuzzy-haired, violin-playing odd-sock wearing icon of physics. The moral of this story is certainly not that Zach is some kind of science genius with pushy parents - he hasn't solved any of the basic equations of quantum mechanics as yet!

He even beat me in one question. Asked about the advantages of mobile phones being a form of wireless communications I failed to get the second point the examiners were looking for. I didn't say "They have no wires" stupid am I?


Wednesday, 10 December 2008


I've just finished reading Neal Stephenson's new novel, Anathem. Previous works by Stephenson have varied from the raw but entertaining Zodiac, through the hilarious Snowcrash (the best opening scenes of a novel ever?) and on into the labyrinthine and erudite yet readable, funny, sexy, gripping 'System of the World' trilogy. In this latest book we are transported to the world of Arbre, fairly similar to Earth but a world where mathematicians/scientists/philosophers live and work in monastery-like buildings, separated from the 'saecular' world. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that this is because of unspeakable things that happened when scientists were able to get their hands on technology.

As the book unfolds it changes nature many times, keeping you fascinated through it's 800+ pages. It's a book about philosophy and you can try matching the famous 'saunts' of Arbre to the philosophers we are familiar with. It's about quantum mechanics and the many universes problem. And it's about meeting aliens. Only the twist here is that it's seen from the Alien's perspective. And I suppose it's a love story, an adventure novel and a lot else besides.

I am amazed at how much Stephenson can get inside a subject like QM or philosophy and produce a stunning novel which incorporates so much of its principles. The last set of novels were all about computing, finance, history and piracy for goodness sake. How much research does he do?

Put it on your Christmas list. A novel for those who enjoy reading, enjoy learning, enjoy thinking.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008


So the world didn't end. The dog didn't bark in the night and no-one gets sued for blowing up the Earth or swallowing it in a Black Hole. For some reason an old filk song comes to mind:

"Don't start an interstellar war,
It really has no uses.
If someone asks you what it's for,
you'll only make excuses.
If 50 billion folk get hurt,
you'll go to bed without dessert.
Don't start an interstellar war"


Well the doomsayers said that the LHC (Large Hadron Collider, and here) at CERN will create a miniature black hole which will destroy us all. People have even made death threats to the scientists (if you destroy the world we'll come and kill you...). Will it all end in disaster? Hear all about Big Bang Day on the BBC, including a special edition of Torchwood - now that's real science for you!

Why bother? What's the use of such basic science if it doesn't lead to better video games or more food for the needy? This The Times editorial from 8/09/08 attempts to answer that.

You could always go out listening to the LHC Rap.

Did the world end for you? Check this site to see*, or if you're really worried you could look at the live webcams from the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS)

*View source for the funniest parts...

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Solar Eclipse

Just found this viedo of the recent total solar eclipse, recorded from an airplane. It gives amazing footage of the conical shadow.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Homeopathy - nothing to prove

New Scientist reports that Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst have offered a cash prize to anyone who can prove that homeopathy works. Then then report Steve Scrutton of the Alliance of Registered Homeopaths as saying ""We have nothing to prove"

Well I really could not have put it better myself...

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Zeilinger and Quantum Mechanics

When I listen to good jazz I am temporarily willing to suspend my disbelief in the soul. And the Abram Wilson quartet are good enough not only to have me believe in the soul but to make it get up and dance. Check them out if you like New Orleans swing with a modern twist and trumpet playing that will blow your mind.

I was listening to them at the unlikely venue of the Institute of Physics in London. They were performing as part of a celebration of the first presentation of the Newton Medal, the IoP's new premiere award to any international scientist. The recipient was Anton Zeilinger who has worked on the fundamentals of quantum mechanics in a very productive life. His group in Vienna have made real such dream (thought) experiments as quantum teleportation, quantum cryptography and diffraction of large molecules (azobenzene, 3.2nm long for example).

The talk Zeilinger gave, preceding the concert, was clear and challenging and much of it hinged on the perceived opposite views of Einstein and Bohr. For Einstein the world was real and quantum mechanics had to reflect that - no spooky action at a distance. For Bohr physics was about what could be measured. Einstein "Are you really asserting that when no-one looks at the moon, it isn't there?". Bohr "Can you prove the contrary?".

That quantum mechanics can distinguish between these cases experimentally (so-called Bell's Inequality experiments) is a true wonder: philosophy once again has to stand aside as physics barges in and answers questions pondered for thousands of years.

Zeilinger's work is peppered with humour - subtle and sly in most cases. To demonstrate quantum cryptography they chose to transmit an image of the Venus Von Willendorf because, as he put it, it was one of the few images that was distinctly Austrian but nothing to do with war! A cryptographic message across the border to Slovenia on its accession to the EU in 2004 read simply "Welcome back!", a jibe at the country's recent communist past but Austro-Hungarian roots.

Zeilinger reminder us most of all that the pursuit of science is a deeply human act, driven by curiosity and personalities. Long may such strong personalities have their say!