They Stand On the Shoulders of Giants
My exposure to science at senior level was different from Vinnie's since the pearls which were cast before the swinish Form1 were thrown by Ben Vaughan, into whose hands we were delivered for that first year.
Science is a maze of fascinating topics, each sub-divided into even more fascinating topics but unfortunately Mr. Vaughan didn't possess the skill to enthuse us about any of them. When I look back I now realise that Ben belonged to another era - he was more of a technician than a school teacher and would have been admirably suited, like Nori Clegg, if Hathershaw had remained a purely technical school. But the Education Revolution was just beginning and the school was rapidly becoming a Grammar School, whether some teachers liked it or not, and it required different skills and new thinking.
Ben was actually a very good man. Very kind, gentle, humorous, the sort you'd have as a favourite Uncle. But he lacked the skills of a teacher and had an unfortunate mannerism in that he never spoke with his eyes open. His delivery was always the same...he would look at you, pause for a second, shut his eyes and start to talk. His eyes would only open when he ran out of breath so you may have had to listen to two or three unsighted sentences in one go. He would then open them, perhaps look out the window, turn his eyes back on you, pause, take a breath, shut his eyes and start talking again. It is difficult to take in what people are saying in these circumstances and most of us didn't.
Our classes took place in the bottom science lab and our first lesson was to familiarise ourselves with the 'BALANCES'. These instruments were a joy to behold. A shiny brass ornate ‘T’ bar from which dangled two shiny copper plates held on by a chain which I would have willingly worn around my neck six years later. Standing by the side of one pan was a polished wooden box containing brass weights lined up in ascending order of size. All this was encased in a wooden cabinet fronted by a glass door. They were always immaculate, shiny and lined up on the ledge by the windows side by side looking every bit like a rustic antique shop of today. But as practical objects they were useless.
They were avoirdupois weights conforming to the British Imperial System of pounds and ounces and even then we had the feeling that we were being taught something that we would never put into practice. Moreover it was tricky using the instruments since a light draught could have your balance up and down like a see-saw. If you over compensated with too heavy a weight then the pan would crash down like a cymbal or the lightest weights, a thin slither of metal leaf, would either stick to your fingers or would fall from your tweezers to the floor.
Calculating in tons, hundredweights, stones, pounds and ounces was unnecessarily complicated. And why have 2240lbs in a ton, 14 lbs in a stone or 16 ounces in a pound? At least the Americans had the sense to invent the 'short' ton (2000 lbs) to make calculations easier. This tedium went on for a couple of more years until the curriculum thankfully dragged us into a (eventually) unified European Metric System (Systeme Internionale or ‘SI’ units for short).
However I still buy Midget Gems by the 'quarter' and beer by the ‘pint’ so I suppose we ought to maintain a sense of perspective on this.
Another topic was 'Density'. I remember Mr Vaughan introducing the topic by saying that a gob stopper costs more than candy floss, even though it is smaller in size, because it 'weighs heavy'. I have a clear image even after all these years of him saying this and of my bewilderment at this statement. He then went on to the story of Archimedes trying to outfox the precious metals debasers. Archimedes devised a means of quickly testing a metal’s purity by comparing densities using displaced water as a comparative measurement. But I just couldn't get excited about the subject and it was some time before I realised the importance of Archimedes' work in the history of science. Even today I still cannot think about density without thinking of Ben's gobstoppers 'weighing heavy'.
All this was made worse by the heat wave currently on at the time and that the lessons took place in the afternoons. It was always a toss up who would drop off first, we or Ben.
And then came the lessons on the Wheatstone Bridge. I am sure it was an interesting topic and I can still see now a plywood board onto which was fastened a circuit of resistors connected in a diamond shape. But as to what it did I'm afraid I hadn't, and still haven't, a clue.
Of course, one must temper critisism when all this is seen in context of the early 60's but it is a pity that so much valuable time was wasted and that we weren't ready to enter the GCE curriculum stream in the third year with a good knowledge base, enthusiastic and eager to learn.
From there we crossed the corridor in our third year to Denis Townley in which laboratory I would spend the next five years studying physics. Denis couldn't have been more different and it was as though someone had just switched on the lights. He made science interesting and, as with Mike’s description of Geoff Rayson, Denis made science come alive for me. It helped that he had also taught my Aunt and Uncle at Ward Street, and remembered them, and as such I felt a certain affinity with him. (Incidentally it was with this same Uncle that I constructed a 10" Dobsonian reflecting telescope in 1985. We talked about Thumper as we marked out the focal length of the mirror on the tube to mark the position of the eyepiece).
Nevertheless Tom could be strict and was often a terror.
We weren't to write down anything we didn't understand - to do so was a capital offence. I once queried something and got a bollocking for not understanding it. Each form had a similar patsy and topics were only queried once per academic year.
But he revived my interest in science and his introduction to 'light' has had me fascinated by the subject ever since. He taught us how to measure how far an image was behind a mirror, why left and right are transposed in a mirror but up and down aren’t, what parallax errors are, about convex and concave lenses and focal lengths - I lapped it all up because he made it so damned interesting.
When he was talking you quickly learned to maintain eye contact with him. He was a dead shot with a board duster or a piece of chalk, which you discovered when you absent-mindedly looked out the window. But I was never scared of him. I always had the feeling that anyone deserved what they got and if they ended up with a chalk mark on the side of their face then it was their own fault.
And he was funny.
"You've all heard of Ted Ray, well this is ReflecTed Ray" he would say as he traced out the line of a beam of light bouncing off a shiny surface.
And who can forget his joke (during one lesson about electricity) about an employee of the Greyhound Bus Company in America who was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by the electric chair? Three times they tried to electrocute him and three times he survived the process. They reprieved him as a result. And how did he survive? Because he was a BAD CONDUCTOR !!
Howls of genuine laughter.
Denis also introduced us to chemistry when he assessed the percentage of oxygen in the atmosphere by passing a fixed volume of air through alkaline pyrogallol, a chemical which I shall always remember and which I never came across again in my life. Denis carried out this experiment with incredible dexterity, skill and wit and had us thoroughly captivated.
He introduced us to the concept of explosive gas mixtures in a way guaranteed to make it stick in our minds. A can was produced in which a hole had been pierced at the top. He filled the can with gas from a gas tap on the bench and set it on his desk, igniting the gas which was now escaping from the can through the hole. It looked like a metallic candle with a blue flame. He then started to dictate notes which we hastily scribbled down. The flame went out. Nothing happened. It was only when he got to the point about gases having to be in certain proportions before they become explosive when, BANG!!, the bloody can blew to smithereens. Every single person’s notes had a sharp line disappearing off the page caused by their jumping about a foot off their stools with fright.
He introduced us to static electricity in another memorable way. A Wimshurst Machine was placed on the desk and a glass sheet placed on the floor in front of it. Brian Navin was told to stand on the sheet and grip each of the spherical terminals of the machine. Denis then started to crank up the machine, turning the handle faster and faster until it made a whirring noise.
After a couple of minutes he stopped turning and, just like the gas can at first, nothing spectacular occurred. He then pointed to me and asked me to get up and shake hands with Brian. This I did and approached Brian with outstretched hand. As we got within six inches of each other, CRACK !!, a blue flash shot out from Brian’s hand to mine giving me a fair jolt. Welcome to static electricity.
I doubt whether H & S Laws would allow such demonstrations nowadays or even the type of safety instructions we were given. Thumper was once handling some hot sulphuric acid and told us to be careful, since it wasn’t the kind of thing we would want running down our trouser leg.
Now, that’s the way to do it....
Imitation is flattery and in a play we produced one Christmas (written by Vinnie and Brian Heywood I think) one line was.....
"Sir my pen's run out."
"Well run out after it then!!"
Straight out of the Thumper Tom stable.
It was a sad day when, a couple of years later, Thumper suffered a stroke whilst teaching. He just collapsed onto the floor whereupon an ambulance was called and he was taken away. He reappeared in school about six months later and, although we were still entrenched with Jim Mills, Denis took us for a lesson. Presumably this was part of his rehabilitation and although he had lost none of his wit he was much slower and his speech extremely slurred. I would rather not have seen him that day, preferring to retain the memory of his sparkle and enthusiasm.
In tragedy there is sometimes humour, albeit dark. Tom had collapsed whilst half way through writing a sentence on the blackboard. Some wag had continued the chalk line from the incomplete word down the board onto the wall and down the wall to the spot where his hand would have been on the floor when he fell.
Step forward if this were you. I accuse the class of ’58.
I will finish on Denis Townley by saying that my son, Danny, is also fascinated by light and spacetime which has come about in no small way by my enthusiasm of the subject. Tom's influence has stretched over three generations of my family.
We went from Thumper Tom to Jim Mills and I got the feeling that the clock had just been turned back ten years. We were now in the world of gas rings heating buckets of water and of outdated thermostat devices as mentioned by Vinnie.
Nevertheless he developed our knowledge of static electricity, demonstrating it's presence using gold leaf electroscopes and showed us that it was an integral part of nature - particularly in the atmosphere. I cannot pass a lightening conductor without thinking of Jim. Similarly, after we were taught about the physical properties of metals, whenever I now see the tie rods in old cottages and think about the contracted bar forever pulling on the wall plates, Nat is there. He introduced us to other properties of liquids and metals. We played about chasing mercury droplets across the bench (highly poisonous) and having ether poured onto our hands (highly flammable) feeling the cold sensation and watching it vanish immediately.
Whereas Ben Vaughan would shut his eyes whilst addressing us, Jim would scratch the left side of his head with his right hand - arm going over the crown - whilst tipping back on his chair so that his head touched the blackboard. One day he fell off.
Jim meant well, very well, but he didn’t or couldn’t catch up with the (very rapidly) changing times. I remember his telling us that he had just returned from Manchester University where, in a much darkened room, he had been privileged to view an experiment in colour television. He said that the quality was poor and that there was much work to be done. He doubted whether we would see colour TV in our lifetime. This was in 1963.
Jim was great fun on school trips and was genuinely interested in our well-being but unfortunatley he was an anachronism. He would have been much better suited teaching about Industrial Revolution mechanisms - steam engines, Crompton's Mule, flying shuttles, coal mining and so on. He would have excelled at that. And he wouldn't have had far to go to demonstrate it to us in action.
I remember many practicals, unlike Vinnie, but I do agree that we weren't taught to think for ourselves. But this was due to the demand for results as mentioned by Mike elsewhere and was implemented relentlessly by Killer Kerrigan in preparation for our 'O' level chemistry. Lessons consisted of taking dictation. Homework consisted of writing it up in our exercise books and learning it by heart. Cyril didn't care if we understood it as long as we remembered it word for word.
Much has been said about Killer’s methods by Mike and I needn’t repeat them here. But suffice it to say that although I was guaranteed a good pass in the subject I cannot remember today a single thing he taught me.
When John Evans arrived his style was to make us reason things out for ourselves but unfortunately we were not equipped to do so. We just learned, by rote, everything we were taught. This had disastrous consequences for me at University.
John Evans was a breath of fresh air. He picked up from where Thumper left off. Being not much older than we were, for the first time in our school life, we had someone who spoke the same language as we. Not only that but he gave us plenty of rope and, of course, we took it by the yard (sorry, metre). It is only a pity that we didn’t give back as much as we received but, as I have just said, we didn’t know how to think or reason.
But, unlike with Killer, I can recall much of John's teaching - organic chemical behaviour, colloids, osmosis, vapour pressure, distillation and the 'Height Equivalent Theoretical Plates' index of a distillation column and even an introduction to the dual nature of light, which was only just coming through as late news.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time with him and looked forward to going into school. More than once we went to his house for a beer and a chat.
To give you an idea of what I mean, just put Bricker Fielding and John Evans side by side. We were taught by the pair of them in consecutive lessons. At the end of a Physics or Chemistry lesson, walking down the corridor from the girl’s entrance to Classroom 3 was like going through a time tunnel......
I shall be forever grateful to John.
I've maintained my interest in science ever since and have a layman's understanding of the developments from Einstein to the Hadron Collider.
I will talk to anyone, who will listen to me, about it.
As a taster, the whole thing started when a beam of light was directed at a piece of cardboard which had two vertical slits in it, about an inch apart. When the pattern was inspected on the surface onto which the light had fallen it was apparent that the beam had gone through both slits causing a diffraction, or interference, pattern. So what, you may ask? Well, when a small single particle was fired at the slits the same pattern resulted.This showed that not only did light (electromagetic radiation) have a dual nature as a particle or a wave but also that one single particle could go through both slits at the same time, which seems impossible. Not only that but when you attempted to observe what was happening they stopped behaving in this manner. It was as though they didn't like being watched.
And thus Quantum Physics was born.
(I thoroughly recommend you to see this very brief explanation )
Everything you do today, even reading this on your computer screen, has emanated from that one brilliant deduction from an ingenious experiment. Vinnie humorously refers to Sod's Law as inevitable. He doesn’t realise how right he is because Sod's Law is a fact of nature. If it is possible for two events to happen then BOTH will occur simultaneously. In the Quantum World the Universe just splits into two to accommodate this. It is possible that we actually live in a multiverse not a universe. This isn't the rambling of a demented ‘Trekky’ who needs to get a life but this is actually where the clever money is at present.
As far as ‘The Hadron Collider’ is concerned - and this links with the above, - the Holy Grail of Quantum Physics is to unify all the forces of Nature, in other words to find the one force which existed at the creation of the universe out of which all the other forces were created - electomagnetism, gravity, nuclear forces etc.When this is done we shall know all there is to know about our universe. This is one of the things Stephen Hawking is working on. Part of this quest is to find the Higgs' Boson.
What is the Higgs' Boson?
Well, all force fields have a particle associated with them. Take for example electricity. We know and accept that an electric field is associated with an electric particle or a magnetic field is associated with a magnet. One cannot exist without the other. The same is for matter. We are all wave forms but the thing that gives us substance is the Higgs' Field. When a wave form passes through such a field the wave is given the property of matter or mass. This is generally accepted as the best theory of what we observe but in order to prove this conclusively we must find the Higgs' Boson i.e. the particle which generates the Higgs' field. It is hoped that by smashing two particles together going in opposite directions at a speed nearing the speed of light, the Higgs Boson will be briefly exposed and proven to exist. This would make the Higgs’ Field theory a fact and thereafter I would expect the party to go on for years.
The best thing about it would be that this would be done in Higgs' own lifetime. We would be able to point to the man who helped devise the theory of everything.
Now that would be something.
I was once on the interview panel for the Cosmology Chair at Lancaster University (as a Lay Member) and during coffee breaks I was mingling with Cosmology Professors from Cambridge University. I mentioned to them that Steve Hawking had once said that we will know all there is to know about the universe in about 15 years time and asked did they agree? They doubted it very much and said it wouldn't be in our lifetime.
But that's what Jim Mills said about colour telly.
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