Tuesday, January 29, 2013

What's a Physics to you?

About a decade ago, I asked a nervous little girl on her first day of school who was probably missing her mummy, "Hi, do you like Physics?" ...I didn't know what else to say. I like Physics, she must have an opinion on the topic...Her response was "What's a Physics?" Her teacher looked at me as if to say, really? That's your opener?

Since then I have come to realise a few other things about what Physics is, and what it isn't.

Physics is many things to me, it's exciting and confronting, it's hard and it's easy, it's fascinating and frustrating, but generally awesome! I love it how almost everything can be explained by a few simple physical principles and laws. But that's my biased opinion, what about others?

Being a science communicator and a former High School Science teacher, I get to see a lot of what Physics in the society is. I have identified what Physics is based on two categories:
  1. Physics before you leave High School
  2. Physics after you leave High School
Physics before you leave High School

Before you leave High school, you are forced to go into a Science classroom (I'll generalise to science from here on) for about 3 hours per week, and if your in year 11 or 12, you don't even have to do that. Some peoples last encounter with formal science education ends when the are 15, which is ok!

But that's all it is, it's the 45 minute lessons where you go into a classroom and get told to be careful with the gas taps, Bunsen burner licenses, annoying ticker tape machines, light boxes, Cathode Ray Oscilloscopes that don't work and that strange teacher. This situation is sort of removed from everyday life. Where in the outside world do you use a bunsen burner? add and subtract vectors? or draw a line of best fit?

I found a lot of students would switch off as soon as the bell went and would not connect extremely obvious links between Physics and Maths for example. If it didn't have the label of Science, it wasn't at all connected to Science whilst in the classroom, and if it did have the label of Science, it was too hard.

Physics after you leave High School
Science after you leave High School on the other hand was that thing that you wished you paid more attention to whilst you were in High School! This was very obvious when having parent teacher interviews, or the teacher stuck with supervising the science class on an excursion. They'll say things like, "I was never good at Science at school."That sentence still makes me sort of laugh, but also sort of face palm!

Science is also the thing that might get you a few extra points at the trivia night when the question about the order of the planets comes up "What was it again, My Very Earnest Mother Just....something, something, Uranus, something, Pluto...Is Pluto still a planet?" I find that moment when the Science questions comes up a very strange one. All the heads at the table swing towards me as if to say, This is what you've been trained for! This is not a drill, fulfil your purpose, then we can get back to the celebrity and music questions.

Recently Science, especially Physics, has been a little bit more acceptable due to the popularity of the TV sitcom The Big Bang Theory. (The last time us nerds had a role model in a popular TV show was Ross from Friends). But this is just another opportunity for people admit that they weren't very good at Science in High School so they don't get all the Physics jokes, again fitting back in to the High School mentality of not making the connection. It isn't about Physics, It's about characters who happen to do Physics.

Science is more that all of this of course. We make predictions, we solve problems, we ask questions and we get answers, we apply principles and we talk with colleagues. So in reality Science is not that different to what a lot of people do. Sure, we have a lot of Jargon, but so does the lawyers, or the public service. We have tools of the trade, some of them very small, some of them very, very big, but so does the mining industry, or architects.

I don't know of a single scientist that uses a Bunsen burner (I'm sure some do, I just don't know any, but I'd be willing to be that there aren't that many) and if you point at a random star in the night sky, I probably won't be able to tell you what it is.

BUT...I can tell you what the Bunsen burner is for, what it achieves and what the process of combustion is. And I can tell you how almost every star was created, about how long it will exist for and how it will die. I can also justify why we should spend billions on a large machine like the Large Hadron Collider, or the Square Kilometer array, and what we hope to achieve from those experiments, or why we should go back to the Moon, or go to Mars.

Most importantly, if I don't know the answer (even though I'm a Physicist...shock horror) I know where to go to find the answer! That's what Physics is to me.

What is it to you?

By the way, Pluto is now classified as a Dwarf planet, and yes, I do get the Physics jokes in the Big Bang Theory!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Physics hobbies part 2

Amateur Astronomy

I was recently given a wonderful gift of a small 130mm tabletop Dobsonian collapsible telescope and I absolutely love it.

I'l list some pros and cons here but in short, and if you're into the whole tl:dr thing, if you want to buy a telescope and get into astronomy and you don't want to spend to much money, get this one. If you want a rad present for your kids, your school, your friend that has almost anything.. get this! (Cool uncles get their nieces and nephews Telescopes!)


  • Apart from being very few cons (it's daggy to say that it's biggest problem is that it's too good), the telescope is not huge, but for the price, perfect!
  • It does not track objects
  • It can be a bit shaky
  • That's about it really.
  • Extremely portable, I take this thing with me everywhere!
  • Perfect for seeing most interesting objects like the moon, a couple of planets (and their moons, nebulae, galaxies, binary stars, the moon, the sun)
  • Cheap
  • Easy to use
After spending even a few night out with this telescope, I have started to be able to locate stars and planets without the assistance of those brilliant iphone apps like skymap etc. I can predict where things will be at what time of night and can even start some basic navigation by the stars. It makes me feel close to science, a little bit like i'm discovering these things with the pioneers like Gallileo, Kepler and Brahe. This is really what science is, discovery and excitement.

I want more, I want to get bigger telescope, I want to make my own telescopes, I want to get these for all my friends with kids, I want to join an amateur astronomy club, I want to give one to the students I see in my job, I want to go outside right now cos the sky has cleared up and go and see if I can see the great red spot on Jupiter, or the Andromda galaxy. So I will.

Clear skies!