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Margaret Harris: January 2009 Archives

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A Higgs Boson, as envisaged by The Particle Zoo

By Margaret Harris

Congratulations to Alexandra Gade of the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory at Michigan State University for winning Physics World’s 2008 Quiz of the year, which took a lighthearted look at physics events ranging from an Indian moon mission to the discovery that some granite countertops “might heat your cheerios a little” due to their low-level radioactivity.

In addition to the everlasting glory of victory, Dr Gade will also receive a cheque for £50, which works out at around $75 at today’s exchange rate. It’s a pity about the declining pound, but sadly there’s nothing we can do about it.

If your entry didn’t win this year, better luck in 2009 - and here are the answers in case you’d like to check your memory skills.

By Margaret Harris

I came to physics very late by UK standards: I had already started my freshman year of college. For scheduling reasons, I therefore had to take introductory mechanics with engineers rather than physics majors. Supposedly, this meant I had roughly 300 classmates, but in practice, attendance at any given lecture hovered around 50 students - half of whom sat slumped in the back of the room, muttering “God, I hate physics”.

It seems that my experience was far from unique, and according to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, the physics department at MIT has decided to do something about it. Their new mechanics and E&M courses for undergrads employ something called Technology Enhanced Active Learning (TEAL) that does away with the traditional professor-in-front-of-blackboard lecture format in favour of students working on physics concepts in small groups at round tables. Various high-tech gizmos let the students answer questions posed by the professor, who wanders around the room with a few teaching assistants giving presentations and answering questions.

The result? Attendance at these non-lectures has shot up from less than 50% under the old format to over 80%, and the failure rate has dropped from 12% to 4%. The NY Times article quotes a number of experts who think the new system is just great - including atomic physicist Carl Wieman, who’s become deeply involved in changing physics education since winning the Nobel Prize in 2001.

There’s just one fly in this ointment: the students seem to hate it.

Blast on BBC 4

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By Margaret Harris

Last month’s blog posts included a review of a film called BLAST, which follows a group of scientists working on the Balloon-Borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope as they struggle to get their project off the ground (literally).

This week UK viewers can watch BLAST from the comfort of their living rooms: BBC 4 is showing the film as part of its Storyville documentary series at 10 pm on Wednesday 7 January. For truly dedicated (or truly sleepless) viewers, there will also be a repeat at 01:50 on 8 January.

The programme can also be viewed via the Internet using BBC’s iPlayer (available to UK-based computers until 14 January).