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The New Physics - An Exam
July 24, 2007 6:18 AM   Subscribe

The wave equation is v = ƒλ. How does that make you feel?
posted by ikebowen (50 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
*raises hand*

Um, can we use a calculator for this?
posted by oh pollo! at 6:21 AM on July 24, 2007


Y’know that beginning bit in “Jump Around” by House of Pain where if you’re in a bar everyone’s face sort of lights up with realization? I feel like the point after that realization - just when everyone’s muscles beef up and chests puff out - but before you get fatigued from the repetition - and we’re all cocky Irish street bad-asses. Like that except with the Greek thing. Oh, and Zorba.
posted by Smedleyman at 6:25 AM on July 24, 2007 [2 favorites]


Here's the antidote.
posted by Wolfdog at 6:36 AM on July 24, 2007 [10 favorites]


What is "AQA GCSE?"
posted by oddman at 6:36 AM on July 24, 2007


ATTENTION USERS: POSSIBILITY OF PHYSICAL SCIENCE vs. HUMANITIES FLAME WAR APPROACHING UNITY. USE EXTREME CAUTION.
posted by Avenger at 6:39 AM on July 24, 2007 [4 favorites]


This is for science reporters, right?
posted by grobstein at 6:39 AM on July 24, 2007


oddman - the book is part of a curriculum approved by the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (UK) for the General Certificate of Secondary Education.
posted by ikebowen at 6:42 AM on July 24, 2007


I was a witness to the real start of the dumbing down of the British education system, being in the first cohort to take the GCSE exams. We had practiced on 'O' level papers for mock exams etc, and so had the opportunity to compare, contrast and LOL. This made me LOL again. Plenty of other funny on the the site too.
posted by nowonmai at 6:42 AM on July 24, 2007


HA! Last one make me think PeeWee Herman... "La, la, la, la, connect the dots...la, la, la, la, la connect the dots."

I know there's something else that I should be doing. But this is just sucking me in.
posted by NotInTheBox at 6:43 AM on July 24, 2007


Oh man, this brings back memories of when this kind of thing was funny. Those were the days!
posted by DU at 6:46 AM on July 24, 2007


oddman - the book is part of a curriculum approved by the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance (UK) for the General Certificate of Secondary Education.

No, just the one question about the taxi was. I don't blame you for thinking the rest of the questions were also from the actual exam, however, because the fonts, design, drawing and writing of that strip are "sub-Ziggy"
posted by neustile at 6:47 AM on July 24, 2007


This one is awesome.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:47 AM on July 24, 2007 [5 favorites]


Will this be on the exam?
posted by Meatbomb at 6:49 AM on July 24, 2007


I was about to post the EXACT same comment as young Gerson there, but previewed.
posted by nowonmai at 6:51 AM on July 24, 2007


Is this you?
posted by caddis at 6:52 AM on July 24, 2007


The link provides compelling evidence that people in the past used to be much smarter and rigorous in their attempts at humor... today, humor is all fuzzy and flakey, not really challenging and laugh-out-loud funny like it used to be when I was young.

In any case, the author actually has some interesting things to say about The State of Teaching Physics Today™ if you click on the mock physics exam.
posted by deanc at 6:53 AM on July 24, 2007


Imagine a taxi firm uses an ambulance radio channel by mistake. Write a short story about the mix-up that happens when the taxi firm uses the ambulance radio channel.

A taxi firm uses an ambulance radio channel by mistake. Discovering what ambulance drivers charge for a short trip to the hospital, the taxi firm realizes that their drivers are not working hard enough to overcharge passengers. They fire all of their hacks, hire ambulance drivers instead, add extra digits to the fare meter, and begin accepting insurance. The end.
posted by three blind mice at 6:57 AM on July 24, 2007 [2 favorites]


Wot, no metafilter?
posted by Luddite at 7:03 AM on July 24, 2007


Wow! I think I've been to slashdot approximately twice in my entire life, but this comic really kind of explained a lot of things I was confused about.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 7:05 AM on July 24, 2007 [2 favorites]


I really think that first question got it wrong: you have to follow up with "Can you say more about that?"
posted by OmieWise at 7:13 AM on July 24, 2007


Say what you want about the UK, at least curriculum designers there (and by extension, as these things usually go, Ireland) got totally into the "new maths" and stuck with it for ages, unlike the US. As a result, and I remember distinctly the year this changed, my elementary maths education changed from endlessly re-reciting basic arithmetic to, as the teacher explained it, "fun stuff". We learned axiomatic set theory, transfinites, alternative bases, matrix multiplication, and so on, generally before puberty.

As a result, I may not have developed as much of a proficiency at my times-tables and the digging-a-ditch questions, but I could manipulate mean eigenvectors by 14 or so. I recently had the unpleasure to retake basic 1st-year physics and chemistry in a US college, and I was surprised at the distinct lack of advanced mathematical tools available. It was all arithmetic, simple algebra and basic, basic calculus. Admittedly, this was one of the non-maths major classes, but I was surprised to find that US high schoolers on the whole were not exposed to a significant degree of "modern" maths. This left me feeling quite sad and, on the whole, I think I'd have to say that I feel that my Irish (/UK) elementary and secondary comprehensive school education exposed me to a satisfyingly broader range of maths and physics than I think most similar US students tend to encounter.
posted by meehawl at 7:13 AM on July 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


How does it make me feel?

Since this attempted parody is a perennial favorite used by rightwing squawk-jocks to mock science and education, I feel no surprise that we're such an anti-intellectual society pushing creationism, reading horoscopes, watching John Edward, and wondering if global warming is a valid issue.
posted by RavinDave at 7:16 AM on July 24, 2007 [3 favorites]


Which reminds me, I studied psychology at University. My finals consisted of a single four hour exam. There was only one question. That question was: "Psychology?" *

*May not actually be true
posted by Jofus at 7:16 AM on July 24, 2007 [3 favorites]


neustile - you may want to reread that. oddman was talking about the book, not the exam.
posted by edd at 7:21 AM on July 24, 2007


This is the wave equation. Do not taunt the physicists.

So there was a dumb question appearing somewhere in a text. Is that the point of this?
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:22 AM on July 24, 2007


neustile - you may want to reread that. oddman was talking about the book, not the exam.


heh, I was blinded by my own snark. apologies.
posted by neustile at 7:26 AM on July 24, 2007


(@ a robot made out of meat) The point is the shift(s) in the focus of science ed, how people/entities have implemented it, and how it's being taken. Or, well, that's what I was going for.

Sarcasm at the topic link aside, it does seem to be slightly a touchy topic. *wonders if this could be considered trolling
posted by ikebowen at 7:30 AM on July 24, 2007


Yeah, the actual point is in the click-through. And I feel sorry for UK physics students. Say what you will about the impact of AP on high school education, the curricula the program requires are all legit (in my experience). Who's in charge of the GCSE, bureaucrats or educators?
posted by silby at 7:31 AM on July 24, 2007


4) A debate is occurring at the local university between two scientists, one who thinks the Earth is at the centre of the solar system and the other who thinks the sun is at the centre.

c) Suggest a way the scientists could compromise.

Simple, that's Tycho Brahe's system.
posted by CrunchyFrog at 7:34 AM on July 24, 2007 [2 favorites]


Silby, they've recently announced the changes to the secondary curriculum in the UK. I'd say it's about 65% bureaucrats and politicians.
posted by Helga-woo at 7:43 AM on July 24, 2007


Hmm...I must be too old or too stupid. Probably both.
posted by sluglicker at 7:48 AM on July 24, 2007


the essay deanc linked to made me like this guy a lot more than most of his comics did.

The thing that attracts pupils to physics is its precision. Here, at last, is a discipline that gives real answers that apply to the physical world. But that precision is now gone. Calculations — the very soul of physics — are absent from the new GCSE. Physics is a subject unpolluted by a torrent of malleable words...


Lord knows I'm a wishy-washy postmodern humanities type, but I have a deep respect for hard science because of people like this guy. I remember my high school physics teacher going to great lengths to create materials that were more math heavy than the prescribed text book and I'm grateful he did.

I also remember plenty of shitty high school science classes that were reduced to a series of shitty, uninformed social studies projects and presentations.
posted by es_de_bah at 8:02 AM on July 24, 2007


Is this you?

No, in my dreams my laptop is bigger.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 8:12 AM on July 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


Since this attempted parody is a perennial favorite used by rightwing squawk-jocks to mock science and education, I feel no surprise that we're such an anti-intellectual society pushing creationism, reading horoscopes, watching John Edward, and wondering if global warming is a valid issue.
posted by RavinDave


Interesting. I saw it as a rebuke of intelligent design and the fuzzy-headed politicization of science. Really, it's not mocking science. It's defending science from people who'd rather turn it into a political debate. Through my eyes, of course.
posted by billysumday at 8:37 AM on July 24, 2007


"The wave equation is v = ƒλ. How does that make you feel?"

So alone, so very lonely. And purple around the gills.
posted by davy at 8:43 AM on July 24, 2007


My A-level science teacher is co-author of this book. Which goes into rather a lot of detail about how much the current syllabus sucks.
posted by public at 8:45 AM on July 24, 2007


(Well he was my A-level teacher several years ago anyway.)
posted by public at 8:46 AM on July 24, 2007


Sorry if that was too snarky. I just don't think that a comic which picks out a single question from a book which probably contains hundreds if not thousands of exercises (a book that most/all of us have never seen) is informative to science education and how it is done. Furthermore, there's a lot of variety in classrooms and students, so anecdotes don't form fair criticism or really suggest how science ed should proceed.

Now that someone linked the related essay by the author, I can only agree in part with his ideas. Yes, that specification looks crappy. No, I don't think performing calculations needs to be at the heart of every physics assignment below univeristy level. Almost none of the calculations that lower level students learn to perform are actually useful (even in sciences), since in order to be easily done/tested they represent extremely crude approximations. Sure, you can perform the calculation for the parabolic motion of a cannon-ball. However, even in the case that you need to predict falling motion (!), you will be significantly wrong. The most useful ones I remember were for electronics, statics, and optics. There are plenty though were a good conceptual understanding is the fruit of the deep mathematics which student can wait to do after they understand a Hamiltonian and the wave equation.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 8:57 AM on July 24, 2007


a robot made out of meat, how is one ever going to progress to a point where they identify all the factors in a physical problem, correctly arrange the relevant and available data into meaningful formulas, and then correctly arrange the relevant formulas in relationships to solve that problem in all of its complexity, if they don't start with basics. Once algebra and geometry are taken care of in early high school, isn't it a good time to teach kids basic mathematical physics? Is there a better way to add concrete understanding to the often difficult abstractions in math?
posted by es_de_bah at 9:26 AM on July 24, 2007


The flip side of the argument made in the essay that deanc linked to is that too often the kind of traditional physics instruction that the author advocates allows people to think they've learned something because they can plug numbers into an equation. Read the problem, hunt around for an equation, plug in some numbers. You get a precise numerical answer. For some people, it's a pretty satisfying process. For a lot of other students, though, it seems pretty pointless.
The questions in the link are crappy questions. You can write crappy quantitative questions as well. But a well-designed conceptual question can challenge students at all levels, and can lead to insights into the relevant physics that a quantitative question on the same topic would not.
posted by Killick at 9:29 AM on July 24, 2007


How does that make you feel?

Since I avoided physics like the plague in both high school and college, it makes me feel pretty damn stupid.
posted by blucevalo at 9:52 AM on July 24, 2007


es_de_bah, I think that toy-problem physics is a good way to practice algebra and geometry. I just don't think that it necessarily advances your understanding of physics. If you do as an above poster suggested and look at the older exams, you'll see that while some of the questions are computational, many of them are not. A formula embodies a concept, and understanding it can clarify understanding of the physical process at work. However, remembering and churning through formulas does not demonstrate the latter. As I said, there are some areas where the calculations are useful to your work. I'll grant that there are some that are useful to the ideas. However, I don't think that calculation performance should be a goal in and of itself in physics ed. In a math examination, sure.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 10:00 AM on July 24, 2007


As someone whose background is not wholly dissimilar from the author of the linked essay's (I have a background and degree in Physics but I left it to pursue other things professionally), I agree with most of his conclusions.

However, I disagree with a few of his premises. In particular, that "Calculations [are] the very soul of physics."

I would argue that concepts or perhaps ideas are the very soul of physics; calculations, and mathematics generally, are but one way of describing those ideas and making predictions based on them. They are a language -- they are not the subject itself. (Though admittedly they are a very precise language, and in many ways superior to natural human ones, but still a language nonetheless.)

Though I think students should not be shielded from the math, or other 'real science' aspects of physics, I think there is merit in finding ways to present the material that is not an immediate turn-off to a great number of otherwise-interested students. And "conventional" physics curricula have a tendency to do that: to beat students over the head with math, and present the math as if it's the explanation for a phenomena itself. And that does a disservice both to students and to the discipline itself.

Physics is a fascinating subject because it, more than any other area of study, actually attempts to unravel the fundamental questions of our universe. It offers plausible explanations for a host of otherwise-mysterious phenomena, and more than that, it provides a framework that can be used to evaluate and test new theories.

The best physics teachers, in my experience anyway, are the ones who introduce students to the concepts first, in a way they understand, and then once they have that conceptual grasp, bring on the equations -- that way, the equations make sense: they are describing something that the student already (at least partially) understands. It makes no sense to try to describe something that the student doesn't understand, in a language that they don't understand; and it's frustrating to force students to learn a language without knowing why they need to learn it, or without any immediate, obvious, and practical application.

That said, the vague, stupid, political, and non-scientific "improvements" that are apparently being made to the introductory Physics curriculum are terrible. But my point is just that the field isn't black and white, you don't have to choose between some "traditional" physics curriculum that's based solely on equations and frustrates many students, and a "new agey" one that replaces all the science with politics and opportunities for bull-shittery; you can have an introductory curriculum that is both "conceptual" and also scientifically rigorous.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:16 AM on July 24, 2007 [1 favorite]


I would argue that concepts or perhaps ideas are the very soul of physics; calculations, and mathematics generally, are but one way of describing those ideas and making predictions based on them. They are a language -- they are not the subject itself.

Well done. I completely concur.
posted by ikebowen at 10:22 AM on July 24, 2007


Coming soon to a university near you: a degree course in Behavioural Physics.

(old joke, I know. I got nuttin'...)
posted by Artful Codger at 10:35 AM on July 24, 2007


I have great memories of my first freshman physics course, Electricity and Magnetism (Eccentricity and Traumatism). We knew just a little calculus, and the first class the teacher asks: "Do you know vector calculus? Tensor analysis? Differential geometry? Linear Algebra? Fourier Series? No? WTF did you learn in High School?! All this is required material for the final in 16 weeks."

Basically we were expected to cram 4 or 5 math courses into the physics class, plus the physics material. The Math was fucking hard, but most of us managed to almost make it there.

The final was a single question, a 10 word description of a particle in a field. You had to tell as much as you could about the system. Some people derived Maxwell's equations, some drew some nice phase space graphs. I just made a bunch of drawings and explained in normal words what was happening. That day I learned you can approach Physics from many angles, and imagination and visualization are as essential as a good mathematical toolbox. A physicist with no imagination is almost as worthless as one without mad math skills.

Next semester we were informed that in order to 'modernize' the Electrical ENGINEEERING program, they would add some courses like "Sociocultural values in the world", "Quality and excellence" and "Oratory", and others would be stricken from the program, unimportant stuff for engineers like "Advanced Math", "Physics III", "Circuits 3" and "Compilers".

Next semester I switched from "Liberal Arts With Calculators" to "Design with lots of cute girls and happy drugs". The hypocrisy was a bit too much.

What I am trying to get to: It is not happening just in the US/UK, and not just in high school. It is happening in every single educational system run by businessmen and politicians that see everything in terms of ratings and profits. They run the schools like they would run a McDonalds. And most students expect it to be so.
posted by Dataphage at 3:52 PM on July 24, 2007


Regardless of the merits of encouraging science related debate, do the questions (or the curriculum behind them) provide a reasonable grounding (at 16 years old, don't forget - not exactly junior school) for future physicists? I can't see how it's possible to answer 'yes' to that question.

At some point it becomes necessary for a physicist to understand the laws of physics - laws that by and large are expressed in mathematical terms. Is there some evidence that it's possible to make up this ground after the age of 16 (geniuses excepted)?

There is obviously a place for encouraging critical thinking, logical debate etc. - regarding everything from the application of science through economics to philosophy and even media studies. But there is a clear distinction between, for example, understanding how nuclear processes produce energy, and debating the advantages and disadvantags of nuclear power, and without experts in the actual science it's difficult for society to have a rational debate that's not open to charlatanry and special interest.

What value is an ill-informed opinion based on a hazy notion of the underlying science?
posted by Shinkicker at 4:07 PM on July 24, 2007


How does that make you feel?

How do you think I feel? Betrayed, bewildered...wrong response?
posted by kirkaracha at 4:21 PM on July 24, 2007


Cause book are like kryptonite to nigga ! Nigga love to NOT know ! Keepin' it reeeeaal !
posted by elpapacito at 5:00 PM on July 24, 2007


"You got humanities in my science!"
"You got science in my humanities!"

Two great tastes that taste great together, but only if you do it intelligently. You don't make a good omelette just by dropping a brick of cheese on a couple eggs.
posted by Many bubbles at 8:48 PM on July 24, 2007


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