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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Friday, September 12, 2003

Mixed Bag

I was planning to devote this post to praising a few articles I found in Physics Today recently, their "Reaching out to Undergraduates" issue in particular (Sept. 2003).

Unfortunately, there are two big problems with that plan: 1) Their web site is broken (read "doesn't work properly in Opera"), and 2) the education articles are behind a paywall. I can't even seem to get at them, because their subscriber access system is also broken. Idiots.

The only thing I can usefully link from there is a piece on the "pentaquark", which follows the typical Physics Today pattern of veering wildly between "insultingly basic" and "unreadably technical." It does provide some more details of the experiments (including a bunch of details left out of my simple description), which might be of interest to some readers.

Of more general interest is something I found via Physics Today, that isn't on their site: The Museum of Unworkable Devices. This is a site dedicated to describing and debunking perpetual motion machines. Some of the devices are really quite ingenious, and the explanations of why they can't work are sometimes subtle, but always clear.

The site should be required reading for patent examiners, and it ought to appeal to anyone who likes the Particles section at Making Light. Check it out.

(I really need to update the "Geek Stuff" section of the sidebar...)

Posted at 10:02 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Thursday, September 11, 2003

Posted at 8:46 AM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Things I Wish I'd Learned in Graduate School

One of the odd perks of my job as a professor of physics among "liberal arts twinks," in Mike's memorable phrase, is the occasional chance to do something academic that really doesn't involve physics at all. Most of these are in the form of lectures from people in other disciplines, but a different one came up last week, when I agreed to lead a discussion of The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien, which was assigned as summer reading for incoming freshmen. (They assigned a book to be discussed as part of the freshman preceptorial program, so discussions were mostly led by the actual precept instructors. Some of them are teaching multiple sections, though, so they needed to recruit a few volunteers to cover the extras.)

I agreed to do this mostly because I had already read the book in question, several years ago, when I was an undergraduate. It was assigned as part of a class about Vietnam, and O'Brien remains one of the very few authors I've ever started reading because they were assigned as coursework. This is evidently a very popular book to assign, judging by the huge number of hits Google returns providing reader's guides, and study questions, and essays to plagiarize. I enjoyed the book a lot, and it provides a lot of fodder for discussion-- Vietnam alone is usually good for an argument, and O'Brien plays all sorts of unreliable-narrator games with the story.

The discussion ended up being an interesting experience, largely because I realized about ten minutes in that I have absolutely no idea how to effectively run a discussion class. In particular, I don't really have the faintest clue what to do when confronted with a room full of students who don't really seem prepared to talk except in response to a direct question. Leading class discussions isn't a skill that's very much in demand in physics-- there tends not to be much to discuss ("Tell me, how does gravity make you feel?" "Heavy." "Fascinating...").

You might object that a smart person would've realized this at a somewhat earlier point, but at the same time, I realized why I didn't think about this: I've never been in a discussion class where it was difficult to start and sustain a discussion, or at least an argument. This is trivially demonstrated by the fact that I've been in all the discussion classes I've ever taken. Anybody who knows me, or has read a bit of this weblog, knows that I'm willing to talk about, well, damn near anything. I also tend to either have or be willing to pretend to have strong opinions about damn near any subject you may bring up, so the hardest part of running a discussion class with me in it was usually getting me to shut up. If there are professorial tricks to draw out reticent students, I don't know them, because I can't recall ever seeing them used...

It's hard to really argue that I should've been taught these particular tricks in graduate school, but it did get me thinking again about the fact that graduate school really does a fairly lousy job of preparing you to teach much of anything. There's never a point when you get taught how to put together a lecture, how to write legibly on a blackboard, how to write useful comments when grading assignments (particularly written ones), how to choose which problems to assign, how to write decent exam questions, or any of the thousand other small tasks I've had to pick up on the fly. Given the prominence of the academic career track in the future plans of most grad students, that's a little disappointing. There are days when I wish that I'd actually had some instruction in this stuff, rather than frantically ad-libbing my way to a compromise.

Then again, my father taught public school for thirty-odd years, and has a Masters in education, and he's always spoken contemptuously of the ed classes he had to take for teacher certification. The teaching process is idiosyncratic enough that it may not really be possible to formally teach people to teach well. It's a tough call.

Anyway, I don't think the discussion went badly, but it involved a lot more of me talking than I had really been hoping for. There were a few interesting comments made here and there, and I was proud of myself for coming up with a bunch of new topics on the fly, after the questions suggested by the organizers ran out, but there was never a point where the discussion became self-sustaining, and I always had to step back in and throw out another question for them to think about. My expectations may have been too high, but I found that a little disappointing.

It was fun, though, in a flying-without-a-net sort of way, and I'll probably give it another shot some time. (Suggestions of foolproof tricks for getting class discussions going are welcome in the comments...) Also, the experience definitely gives me a different perspective on what my colleagues in the humanities do...

Posted at 4:10 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

Tuesday, September 09, 2003

Ow ow ow ow ow...

Speaking of digital images, if you liked beating you head against the checker shadow illusion, you'll love losing your lunch to this rotating snake illusion...

(Link via a mailing list, so don't blame me...)

Posted at 10:41 PM | link | follow-ups | 4 comments


So, we shot up a roll of film, mostly to show off the various improvements made to our house to the various relatives who helped pay for the work, but also because we wanted some good dog pictures. And, while the digital versions leave a bit to be desired (especially after cropping down to a reasonable size), we've got enough to pretty much give you the idea of what she's like.

She's in training to try for the world speed record in shredding her stuffed toys (in her mouth is what's left of a green-and-black stuffed caterpillar, on the floor is the carcass of the Dread Pig-Frisbee, a deeply silly toy bought by my sister, which bore a disturbing resemblance to the pig from that one episode of South Park, at least until Emmy ripped the eyes and nose off...). She's also a Mighty Hunter, quick to chase after backyard threats real and imagined (mostly imagined). Of course, that can get pretty tiring, which leads to a lot of panting, and the occasional long nap.

OK, we mostly shot the pictures in order to show off the dog, and the house stuff was a bonus... She's easily the Best Dog in the Capital Region (even though she always looks slightly worried)...

Posted at 10:35 PM | link | follow-ups | no comments

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