Archive for March 18, 2012

Failed Physics Teaching Analogies

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on March 18, 2012 by telescoper

Last week I deputized for a colleague who was skiving off away at an important meeting so, for the first time ever in my current job, I actually got to give a proper lecture on cosmology. As the only out-and-out specialist in cosmology research in the School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff, I’ve always thought it a bit strange that I’ve never been asked to teach this subject to undergraduates, but there you are. Ours not to reason why, etc. Anyway, the lecture I gave was about the cosmic microwave background, and since I have taught cosmology elsewhere in the past it was quite easy to cobble something together.

As a lecturer you find, over the years, that various analogies come to mind that you think will help students understand the physical concepts underpinning what’s going on, and that you hope will complement the way they are developed in a more mathematical language. Sometimes these seem to work well during the lecture, but only afterwards do you find out they didn’t really serve their intended purpose. Sadly it also  sometimes turns out that they can also confuse rather than enlighten…

For instance, the two key ideas behind the production of the cosmic microwave background are recombination and the consequent decoupling of matter and radiation. In the early stages of the Big Bang there was a hot plasma consisting mainly of protons and electrons in an intense radiation field. Since it  was extremely hot back then  the plasma was more-or-less  fully ionized, which is to say that the equilibrium for the formation of neutral hydrogen atoms via

p+e^{-} \rightarrow H+ \gamma

lay firmly to the left hand side. The free electrons scatter radiation very efficiently via Compton  scattering

\gamma +e^{-} \rightarrow \gamma + e^{-}

thus establishing thermal equilibrium between the matter and the radiation field. In effect, the plasma is opaque so that the radiation field acquires an accurate black-body spectrum (as observed). As long as the rate of collisions between electrons and photons remains large the radiation temperature adjusts to that of the matter and equilibrium is preserved because matter and radiation are in good thermal contact.

Eventually, however, the temperature falls to a point at which electrons begin to bind with protons to form hydrogen atoms. When this happens the efficiency of scattering falls dramatically and as a consequence the matter and radiation temperatures are no longer coupled together, i.e. decoupling occurs; collisions can longer keep everything in thermal equilibrium. The matter in the Universe then becomes transparent, and the radiation field propagates freely as a kind of relic of the time that it was last in thermal equilibrium. We see that radiation now, heavily redshifted, as the cosmic microwave background.

So far, so good, but I’ve always thought that everyday analogies are useful to explain physics like this so I thought of the following. When people are young and energetic, they interact very effectively with everyone around them and that process allows them to keep in touch with all the latest trends in clothing, music, books, and so on. As you get older you don’t get about so much , and may even get married (which is just like recombination, in that it dramatically  reduces your cross-section for interaction with the outside world). Changing trends begin to pass you buy and eventually you become a relic, surrounded by records and books you acquired in the past when you were less introverted, and wearing clothes that went out of fashion years ago.

I’ve used this analogy in the past and students generally find it quite amusing even if it has modest explanatory value. I wasn’t best pleased, however, when a few years ago I set an examination question which asked the students to explain the processes of recombination and decoupling. One answer said “Decoupling explains Prof. Coles’ terrible fashion sense”. Grrr.

An even worse example happened when I was teaching particle physics some time ago. I had to explain neutrino oscillations, a process in which neutrinos (which have three distinct flavour states, associated with the electron, mu and tau leptons) can change flavour as they propagate. It’s quite a weird thing to spring on students who previously thought that lepton number was always conserved so I decided to start with an analogy based on more familiar physics.

A charged fermion such as an electron (or in fact anything that has a magnetic moment, which would include, e.g. the neutron)  has spin and, according to standard quantum mechanics, the component of this in any direction can  can be described in terms of two basis states, say |\uparrow> and |\downarrow> for spin in the z direction. In general, however, the spin state will be a superposition of these, e.g.

\frac{1}{\sqrt{2}} \left( |\uparrow> + |\downarrow>\right)

In this example, as long as the particle is travelling through empty space, the probability of finding it with spin “up” is  50%, as is the probability of finding it in the spin “down” state. Once a measurement is made, the state collapses into a definite “up” or “down” wherein it remains until something else is done to it.

If, on the other hand, the particle  is travelling through a region where there is a  magnetic field the “spin-up” and “spin-down” states can acquire different energies owing to the interaction between the spin and the magnetic field. This is important because it means the bits of the wave function describing the up and down states evolve at different rates, and this  has measurable consequences: measurements made at different positions yield different probabilities of finding the spin pointing in different directions. In effect, the spin vector of the  particle performs  a sort of oscillation, similar to the classical phenomenon called  precession.

The mathematical description of neutrino oscillations is very similar to this, except it’s not the spin part of the wavefunction being affected by an external field that breaks the symmetry between “up” and “down”. Instead the flavour part of the wavefunction is “precessing” because the flavour states don’t coincide with the eigenstates of the Hamiltonian that describes the neutrinos’ evolution. However, it does require that different neutrino types have intrinsically different energies  (which, in turn, means that the neutrinos must have different masses), in quite  a similar way similar to the spin-precession example.

Although this isn’t a perfect analogy I thought it was a good way of getting across the basic idea. Unfortunately, however, when I subsequently asked an examination question about neutrino oscillations I got a significant number of answers that said “neutrino oscillations happen when a neutrino travels through a magnetic field….”. Sigh. Neutrinos don’t interact with  magnetic fields, you see…

Anyhow, I’m sure there’s more than one reader out there who has had a similar experience with an analogy that wasn’t perhaps as instructive as hoped. Feel free to share through the comments box…

Remembering Bird

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on March 18, 2012 by telescoper

Last week saw the 57th anniversary of the death of Charlie Parker, aka Bird, a musical genius on the saxophone whose influence not only on jazz but on twentieth century music is incalculable. I’ve posted quite a few tracks by Bird over the years and one thing I’ve learned from doing that is that he’s by no means everyone’s cup of tea. I can’t do anything about that, of course, but I can at least point out the existence of his wonderful legacy to those (regrettably many) people who’ve never heard of him or his musicI still remember the mixture of astonishment and exhilaration I felt when I first heard him on record and if I can give that sense of joy to just one person via the blogosphere then it’s worth a hundred posts.

Here’s Kim, another one of Bird’s tunes based on the rhythm changes, with an alto sax solo improvised at breakneck speed and with incredible virtuosity. The other day I was talking to a friend of mine who only has a passing interest in jazz and he asked me whether Charlie Parker really was that good. Well, if you’re asking that question to yourself, listen to this and then you’ll have the answer. As far as I’m concerned this is three minutes of pure awesome….