Death and Conkers

Strange connections. No sooner do I post a meandering item about the autumn weather bringing about flashbacks when I get two – quite different echoes – from today’s Guardian.

The first came from the obituary pages, where I read of the death on September 21st 2008 of Professor Sir Brian Pippard, aged 88.

I never knew him personally. In fact he retired from his post as Cavendish Professor of Physics in 1982, which was the year I started my undergraduate degree at Cambridge, so I was never taught by him. His research was predominantly in the area of superconductivity, which is far from my own speciality, so I never knew him through that route either.  But I did develop a kind of respect for him through a little book he compiled, called Cavendish Problems in Classical Physics.

This was on the list of required textbooks I got before I started my time as a student and I still have it today. As its name suggests, this contains all manner of problems about very mainstream topics in physics: electricity, magnetism, mechanics, and so on. Some of them are short, some long, but all have interesting little twists in them and each is instructive in its own way. 

I tried some of these problems on first year physics students at Cardiff last academic year and they turned out to be excessively challenging. In other words, the students couldn’t do them. I don’t want to go into a rant about declining standards of school science teaching, but it is a fact that A-level physics nowadays provides absolutely no preparation for tackling the likes of the  Cavendish Problems because it does not cultivate the kind of lateral thinking needed even to formulate these problems. Instead the students tend to be taken through standard exercises that they learn by rote and regurgitate in examinations. Anything different to what they’ve been led through completely throws them. I’m generalizing horribly, I know, but there’s a lot of truth in there.

It’s not so much that students can’t complete the Cavendish problems, but that they don’t even know how to start. It’s a shame that the art of genuine problem solving is so badly neglected in today’s schools, especially because its the bit that’s the most fun .  The brain can be so much more than a memory device, if only we could free up future generations of young minds by abandoning the obsession with modularised, factoid based teaching.

I think Brian Pippard would have agreed.

The other of today’s autumnal flashbacks was triggered by a short piece about the humble horse chestnut tree.  At this time of year the ground underneath these trees is covered with conkers which are collected by schoolboys and used in the game of the same name.  Or at least that’s what used to happen.

Apparently, for several years now horse chestnut trees have been struggling with adverse weather and attacks from moths. Now they have an even tougher enemy, a virulent disease called bleeding canker. This causes a sticky ooze to emanate from the trunk and branches of the trees, the leaves to die much earlier than usual and, worst of all,  the conkers to be very small or even non-existent. The bacterium that causes this disease  now infects about half the horse chestnut trees in the United Kingdom, and there is no known cure.

The death of high school physics is bad enough, but how can we ever cope without conkers?

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