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Category Archives: science

According to John Gribbin, those of us entertaining the idea that we might find intelligent life on other planets are destined to be disappointed. There appears to be no sign that another advanced civilisation (Gribbin typifies this as one which has advanced to the point of developing radio telescopes) exists.

His central argument hinges on Fermi’s remark that “If aliens exist they would be here“, not seeing any reported ‘alien sightings’ as credible. We have already started to explore beyond our home planet; it would be reasonable to expect another technically sophisticated civilisation (it would only take one) to have done the same. If they think Earth too ‘infected’ to visit they could have sent probes. If their politics are isolationist, it would have only taken one independent individual (with sufficient funds) to explore themselves (and would all alien civilisations be isolationist simultaneously?) We know that only part of our galaxy is inhabitable, they could have worked that out too, and reduced the time it would take to find us. One possibility exists, that we are the oldest and most advanced of the civilisations in the universe and the others have yet to reach a level of technical ability to explore space; but is this likely?

It’s not a happy thought for us members of the Star Trek generation, brought up with space exploration as just another one of those thing we did. We expected that we would have been on Mars long ago. We didn’t know that we wouldn’t have to worry about aliens because there weren’t any.

[‘The Reason Why’ – John Gribbin; talk given at The Mineral Hospital on March 3, 2012 as part of the Bath Literature Festival 2012]


This was the title of the presentation given by Adrian Bowyer of the University of Bath at Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institute (BRLSI). Dr Bowyer is best known for the RepRap (replicating rapid prototyper), a 3D printer capable, of amongst other things, of reproducing its own composite parts. However, rather than focus on that, this talk comprised a number of ‘problems’ (or at least, situations) where Dr Bowyer offers his particular insights and possible solutions based on currently available technology or understood principles.

Ideas on which he elaborated including translating glasses (based on holography); explosive-metabolising microbes; robots that created photovoltaic cells from desert sand (laying them as they were produced and powering the robots to continue);  shoes with inbuilt bellows for cooling and a chemical name capitalisation convention to aid pronunciation.

For those who haven’t yet seen it, Darwin, the first machine released by the RepRap project, is currently on show in BRLSI (Queens Square, Bath):

More information on the RepRap project can be found here:

I was probably not the person who found their heart sinking  a little when they read the comment from a government adviser with regards the removal of climate change from the national curriculum.

Rather than for the sake of the topic itself,  I thought it important enough for inclusion because of how well it illustrates a couple of important issues:  science doesn’t always deliver nice pat answers and scientists don’t always agree. Some non-scientists have been known to express complete disappointment in science/scientists when this happens. Including subjects where there is still debate would seem to be a suitable way of countering this naive view of science as something that does your thinking for you, and scientists as people without opinions.

Further along in the same article, it is suggested that we need to teach content that doesn’t “…date”.  So no content based on theories then which, by definition, could be disproved? I know this wasn’t what was intended but again it seems to suggest a lack of understanding of what science is, something changing and developing.

Another packed programme of presentations this year, here are the highlights of some of them:

Ifan Hughes (Durham) spoke about the use of interactive screen experiments and the role of pre-lab tasks to increase the efficacy of the time students spend in laboratories.

Steve Hanson from the Centre revealed some preliminary findings from the soon to be published data on graduate skills in physics, based on detailed interviews with new graduates from around the UK (there will also be corresponding data published on chemistry and forensic science.)

Simon Bates (Edinburgh) reported on the shift there from years of recruiting undergraduates to now being able to select students and the challenges this has brought.

Vijay Tymms (Imperial) looked at whether repeated testing (at school) was leading to a shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation in students.

Fredrick Floether (Cambridge), our Student Award winner, spoke about his experiences as an undergraduate. He noted the movement towards documents existing only in electronic form (and the possible advantages of this), more use of animations and use of mobile devices. He noted the increase in online learning, the encouragement of students to take learning into their own hands and increasing interdisciplinary nature of science courses. Also highlighted was the increasing internationalisation of higher education, with students flowing in more directions around the globe in pursuit of their education but also the possible bifucation of students into those who attend a campus and those who teach themselves from online resources.

Dick Bacon from the Centre introduced the new adaptive questions that are now available in Question Bank with a call to try them and perhaps submit more to the collection.

Ross Galloway (Edinburgh) spoke about work with students whose coursework scores were significantly higher than their exam scores. These tended to be students whose qualifications were non-UK and who had taken a gap year, and interviews had shown that they had unrealistic ideas about exam preparation and the time it would take. Interesting, merely interviewing students about this appeared to have the effect of improving their subsequent exam performance, though no other intervention had been made.

Sally Jordan (OU) presented details of work on computer assessment of short-answer questions. She emphasised the importance of modeling answers on the real answers of students, rather than those of staff who answer questions differently. The unintended consequence of this has been the greater understanding of the ways students interpret questions which has been used to improve question.

Ross Galloway (Edinburgh) held a workshop on data handling skills. Discussion amongst the participants revealed the following:  teaching such skills tends to be concentrated in the early years and it is hard to convince  students are they should do some data analysis during the experiment as they would rather do it afterwards once the experiment is complete. At Edinburgh it was found that once teaching data handling skills stopped, improvement stopped also; students appeared not to pick up skills without support.

Robert Francis (NTU) detailed an archeo-astronomy project that was being used with school and university groups. A virtual field trip was built to enable pupils/students to be able to make the most of their field work.

Marialuisa Aliotta (Edinburgh) reported on the use of scoring rubrics, use of which students felt led to reduced variation and fairing marking.

Lynn Moran (Liverpool) spoke about outreach work which had grown from an informal grouping of students and had worked on tackling negative views of science.

Personal response to the opening Keynote of ALT-C 2010:

If he’d just said that we should get rid of bad lectures I would have agreed with him but…

It’s like the calls you hear to ban PowerPoint. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with PowerPoint, there is with bad PowerPoint presentations. Similarly, a call to get rid of lecturers is simply missing the point. We’ve probably all had a bad meal in a restaurant, we didn’t call for a ban on restaurants… or eating.

The only good reasons to stop lectures would be 1) because they do no good/do harm or 2) because we have something better. This morning we were not offered evidence of the first (disappointing as the scientific method was mentioned by the speaker) or ideas for the second (simply saying ‘doing more online’ does not count.)

Lecturing (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way) is varied, because the people who lecture vary, as do the students and courses. You may have had a bad experience as an undergraduate, my experience as a physics undergraduate was a good one; let’s call it quits.

I’d like to suggest the speaker actually takes a look at what is going on in lectures today, rather than reach back for a memory of his undergraduate days. It is pointless to say you are angry at a situation but have no real ideas for remedies. Find out what’s going on and you will see what today’s lecturers are doing with their lectures. You’ll find (even physics) lecturers who know about cognitive overload and working memory, and ones carrying on Mazur’s work. There’s still work to do but that’s what the Centre I work with support. Let’s stop cursing the darkness and light a candle.

And last but not least: physics researchers should not teach because they would be ‘square pegs in round holes’ hopelessly held back by introversion and lack of social skills? Feynman managed both very well, Brian Cox isn’t doing too badly either. There are others less well known if you care to look; I will be meeting some of them immediately after ALT-C at our physics education conference. It’s called PHEC*; we may have no social skills but it can’t be said we have no sense of humour.

*Physics Higher Education Conference

Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell DBE is an astrophysicist who, as a postgraduate student, discovered the first radio pulsars.[1] Though this earned her supervisor a Nobel Prize, she was not included; far from being despondent she explains that no student could have expected to be included in such an honor in those days.[2]

Amazingly, only the second woman to be made a professor of physics in the UK, Burnell became the President of the Institute of Physics (IOP) in 2008, the first woman to hold this role.

I met Professor Burnell briefly at a IOP event where she was to give us a presentation on Project Juno[4] and couldn’t help but be impressed by her friendly manner (I was standing on my own as I knew no one there and she came over and spoke to me; it’s the sort of act that leaves an impression.)

With a lifetime of achievements and honors, including Fellowship of the Royal Society and a DBE, she nevertheless remains a modest individual; we are really fortunate to have her as our President.


[1] Cosmic Search Vol. 1, No. 1 – Little Green Men, White Dwarfs or Pulsars?

[2] Jocelyn Bell Burnell – Professor in Astrophysics, President of the Institute of Physics and gender equality champion

[3] Professor Jocelyn Bell Burnell DBE becomes President – IOP

[4] Project Juno

I really didn’t intend to listen to the Moral Maze, in much the same way I don’t go looking at road accidents. But it was about science and what can I say: I was weak, I listened and I paid the price. Let that be a moral lesson to me.

If you didn’t hear it (it was supposed to be about the controversy over certain climate-change emails) you have a few days to catch up with it. For those who didn’t get there quickly enough, in a nutshell: scientists are biased, follow their own interests, like attention and have opinions. My goodness, I think the panel just declared scientists to be human.

Yes, we are all that, like everyone else, and we know it but collectively we want to be something better. Because of that we have built in a system of checks and balances which includes publication of results and methods to our peers. It didn’t take a parliamentary enquiry to do that, the community did it for itself.

Because we might have been partial in our research, we use the science community to act as a check (because our vanity devotion to science means we love to catch someone else out try our hardest to ensure inaccuracies in data or procedure are eradicated.) And because of this people do get caught ‘cooking’ their data which, for the rest of us, is embarrassing and annoying because it lets us all down and worse still it lets ‘science’ down (I’d have them coated in jam and staked out on fire ant hills, I’d even buy the jam.) 

Thanks for the offer but I don’t think we need politicians to bring us the gift of skepticism, though they might employ their skeptical eye to their professions’ expense claims if they are looking for something to do. And, for reference, a scientist is not defined as someone with a PhD. Don’t see why you should listen to someone who doesn’t have one? Do you have one? 

Referring to the evidence (‘hiding behind the science’ as you so beautifully put it) shuts down the debate, yes? Er, no, it moves the debate to the evidence itself. ‘I don’t care about the evidence, I just believe in freedom’, now that’s an example of shutting down a debate.

Thankfully, before I concluded that Radio 4 were losing their claim to purvey intelligent speech, I listened to the repeat of the first episode of a new series: The Infinite Monkey Cage. What a contrast: people talking and other listening; intelligent questions and room for the audience to think. Was it biased? Yes, it was full of opinion and comment but didn’t claim not to be. Again, if you missed it you can still catch it if you’re quick.

Moral Maze

Infinite Monkey Cage

I’ve just returned from working at the Newcastle Mela where I was volunteering for the Institute of Physics (IOP). Entitled Physics in the Field, this volunteer programme from the IOP aims at getting physics and physicists out of the laboratories, classrooms, observatories and anywhere else it and they may be lurking and into the rest of the world.

Physics, as we know, is the science of… well… everything really, so you should be able to illustrate physics principles with anything. So out come the plastic straws (sound, vibrations), balloons (energy), coat hangers (wave motion), old paperbacks (friction), indigestion tablets (pressure) and bubble mixture (surface tension, interference, turbulent flow).

A great time was had by all I think, certainly I enjoyed it: how can you not enjoy having the opportunity to ask someone to wrap a piece of string around their finger and then stick their finger in their ear… in the interest of science, of course.

If you love something, share it, because extensive experimentation on my part has so far not revealed a conservation of enthusiasm principal.

Tom Stafford of the Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield gave a presentation entitled ‘The Learning Brain’ as part of the Cafe Scientifique, York programme.

We started with challenges to the dominant metaphor of the brain as a machine; instead studies have shown it is capable of change and adaptation. Examples of the enlargement of the hypo-campus of London taxi drivers (who have done ‘the knowledge’) and the motor cortex of musicians illustrate it’s dynamic nature.

Although it’s attractive for those who study the brain to want to attribute certain functions to fixed areas of the brain in all subjects, those who sustain brain damage early in life can still become fully functioning because the brain can relocate functions to parts of the brain that are undamaged.

Probably we have also experienced the ‘curse of knowledge’: when you understand something, you can never truly take yourself back to the mental state when when you did not, as learning makes itself invisible.

Although the study of neural networks in the ’80s gave some a false hope that we might be able to build an artificial brain, studies of that technology taught us something important: that learning systems are autonomous. Feeding a cat because he is complaining will result in the cat learning that complaints bring rewards, not what you want to teach the cat but what it learnt nevertheless.

Does coffee taste better from your favourite mug? Well, no and yes. Intrinsically, no it’s the same coffee whatever the mug. However, the mug becomes part of the ritual of taking the drug caffeine. And because caffeine gives the brain a sense of reward without the brain knowing this is only due to the caffeine, the mug become associated with the reward.

So, can you taste the differenece if the milk goes into the cup before the tea or the other way around? Well… find out for yourself at where you can see the results and find out how to carry out your own experiment.

We tend to repeat what we have liked in the past and avoid what we have not liked or the unfamiliar, and this tends to lead systematic bias which can stop us exploring and seeking new experiences. Arguing with someone to convince them that their views are biased is useless, what can work is exposing them to the alternative viewpoint or experience.

The idea of learners as merely receptacles into which knowledge is poured was challenged: what is learned transforms what is doing the learning, and the transformation of the learner is done by the learner, not the teacher.

So gather some of your friends, go to to try some science and enjoy a nice cup of tea (or coffee) into the bargain. Biscuits optional.

I couldn’t comment on every session I attended and, because of the large number of parallel sessions, I saw only a fraction of what was on offer at this conference.

Here are just a few highlights for me:

Dean Zollman spoke about the Pathway project where expert teachers have been recorded giving advice that they would offer to other teachers on a range of popular teaching topics. These soundbites are then presented in the form of a database for others to interrogate using natural language questions. (

Robert Lambourne spoke on glossaries particularly relational glossaries. He pointed out that physics can be a challenge both in terms of the number of new terms that are introduced during a course and also how words from everyday language may have a distinct meaning in physics.

Antje Kohnle presented a study on students’ conceptual understanding of quantum mechanics, and work on investigating the reasoning behind students’ incorrect answers to questions.

Hans Niederrer linked the raising of student motivation with the concept of student ownership of learning. Indicators of a motivated student where that they exercised choice over what they did, applied effort and were persistent. To support this the teacher had to listen and help but not take over.

Els de Wolf had me ready to sign up for a life chasing neutrinos, and not simply based on the Mediterranean location of the experiment.

Elizabeth Swinbank talked to us about, amongst other things, the physics of bungee jumping as an example of teaching physics in the real world and also the Perspectives on Science course: one on the philosophy, history and ethics of science without predefined content, examined by project work.

Erik Johansson talked about the ATLAS project and its outreach programme. As well as teacher master classes that have been held across Europe there are also sophisticated programmes based on ATLAS available to teaching staff and students through the website (

Steve Swithenby spoke on brain imaging including a contrast of the brain activity of experts and non-experts when solving problems.

Pavel Antonov illustrated a simple student experiment whereby turbulent flow was initiated on the surface of a soap bubble.

Phil Scott caused many a sharp intake of breath when he revealed the results of a test question on forces that had been given to (non-specialist) school physics teachers, but also showed what could be achieved with a small amount of specialised help.

Josip Slisko was an excellent final speaker beginning with errors in well-respected and oft recommended textbooks, and then moving on to many examples of textbook questions describing impossible or nonsensical situations. There was much laughter, especially when we viewed a video that a student had made trying to recreate one of these questions ( but the comments that followed from students having met this kind of question was a reminder that whilst homour is good, you need to take care that you do not inadvertently make your subject look ridiculous. Slisko made a suggestion that we collectively gather erroneous material and nonsensical questions in textbooks: he has convinced me that this is serious.

Watch the GIREP website for copies of presentations being made available in the near future (

And to anyone I told that the game of throw-the-toy-rat-through-the hoop that children were playing during our visit to Warwick Castle, was based on an old English tradition, this was in fact a joke… we used to use weasels.