Archive for May 7, 2019

What to do if you find yourself inside the horizon of a black hole

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 7, 2019 by telescoper

Consider how lucky you are that life has been good to you so far.

Alternatively, if life hasn’t been good to you so far – which, given your current circumstances seems more likely – consider how lucky you are that it won’t be bothering you much longer.

That was the advice given to Ford Prefect by The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy when he looked up `What do if you find yourself in a crack in the ground underneath a giant boulder you can’t move with no hope of rescue’. It seems fairly general advice to me, though. If you want more specific advice on what to do if you find yourself inside the horizon of a black hole then you can find it in an interesting paper on the arXiv with the abstract:

In this methodological paper we consider two problems an astronaut faces with under the black hole horizon in the Schwarzschild metric. 1) How to maximize the survival proper time. 2) How to make a visible part of the outer Universe as large as possible before hitting the singularity. Our consideration essentially uses the concept of peculiar velocities based on the “river model”. Let an astronaut cross the horizon from the outside. We reproduce from the first principles the known result that point 1) requires that an astronaut turn off the engine near the horizon and follow the path with the momentum equal to zero. We also show that point 2) requires maximizing the peculiar velocity of the observer. Both goals 1) and 2) require, in general, different strategies inconsistent with each other that coincide at the horizon only. The concept of peculiar velocities introduced in a direct analogy with cosmology, and its application for the problems studied in the present paper can be used in advanced general relativity courses.

It is advertised as a `methodological paper’ and I don’t know if they are planning experimental studies of this problem. I imagine might be difficult to secure funding.

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Is there a role for rote learning?

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , on May 7, 2019 by telescoper

So here we are, then, back to work here in Maynooth for the last week of teaching. Or, to be precise, the last four days – yesterday was a Bank Holiday. With university and school examinations looming, it is no surprise to find an article griping about the Irish Leaving Certificate examinations and the fact that teachers seem to encourage students to approach them by by rote learning. This is something I’ve complained about before in the context of British A-levels and indeed the system of university examinations.

Over my lifetime the ratio of assessment to education has risen sharply, with the undeniable result that academic standards have fallen – especially in my own discipline of physics. The modular system encourages students to think of modules as little bit-sized bits of education to be consumed and then forgotten. Instead of learning to rely on their brains to solve problems, students tend to approach learning by memorizing chunks of their notes and regurgitating them in the exam. I find it very sad when students ask me what derivations they should memorize to prepare for examinations because that seems to imply that they think their brain is no more than a memory device. It has become very clear to me over the years that school education in the UK does not do enough to encourage students to develop their all-round intellectual potential, which means that very few have confidence in their ability to do anything other than remember things. It seems the same malaise affects the Irish system too.

On the other hand, there’s no question in my mind that a good memory is undoubtedly an extremely important asset in its own right. I went to a traditional Grammar school that I feel provided me with a very good education in which rote learning played a significant part. Learning vocabulary and grammar was an essential part of their approach to foreign languages, for example. How can one learn Latin without knowing the correct declensions for nouns and conjugations for verbs? But although these basic elements are necessary, they are not sufficient. You need other aspects of your mental capacity to comprehend, translate or compose meaningful pieces of text. I’m sure this applies to many other subjects. No doubt a good memory is a great benefit to a budding lawyer, for example,  but the ability to reason logically must surely be necessary too.

The same considerations apply to STEM disciplines. It is important to have a basic knowledge of the essential elements of mathematics and physics as a grounding, but you also need to develop the skill to apply these in unusual settings. I also think it’s simplistic to think of memory and creative intelligence as entirely separate things. I seems to me that the latter feeds off the former in a very complex way. A good memory does give you rapid access to information, which means you can do many things more quickly than if you had to keep looking stuff up, but I think there’s a lot more to it than that. Our memories are an essential part of the overall functioning of our brain, which is not  compartmentalized in  a simple way.  For example, one aspect of problem-solving skill relies on the ability to see hidden connections; the brain’s own filing system plays a key role in this.

Recognizing the importance of memory is not to say that rote learning is necessarily the best way to develop the relevant skills. My own powers of recall are not great – and are certainly not improving with age – but I find I can remember things much better if I find them interesting and/or if I can see the point of remembering them. Remembering things because they’re memorably is far easier than remembering because you need to remember them to pass an examination!

But while rote learning has a role, it should not be all there is and my worry is that the teaching-to-the-test approach is diminishing the ability of educators to develop other aspects of intelligence. There has to be a better way to encourage the development of the creative imagination, especially in the context of problem-solving. Future generations are going to have to face many extremely serious problems in the very near future, and they won’t be able to solve them simply by remembering the past.