Saturday, September 24, 2011

Faster-than-light neutrinos

The big science news of the week has been the report of neutrinos traveling faster than light.

The mainstream media has framed the story as the downfall of "Einstein's most trusted theories," a violation of a "cardinal rule of physics" and the like. I suspect some outlets have trained cameras on the 13th floor of science buildings, waiting to capture images of scientists throwing themselves to their deaths over the news.

Physicist had it wrong all this time. How could they lie to us like that? Is ∑F=ma true, or just another lie coming from Big Physics?

It's mostly nonsense, of course. But apparently it's the only way you can run a story about physics research in the mainstream media.

One might reasonably wonder who's behind this physics-shattering research. Is it those pesky chemists with their "central science" braggadocio? Or wore yet: reality-denying economists? Of course not. It's physicists. And they're doing science. And if the science they do leads to a model better than the one we use now, then... well, that's how science works. Just as it did when evolutionists destroyed Piltdown Man. (Creationists could never have destroyed Piltdown Man because they are unfamiliar with the methods of science.)

There are no cardinal rules in science. No immutable laws etched into the stone permanence. There is a process for tentative acceptance or rejection: the process of science. (Not the "scientific method" cleanly described the first chapter of pre-college science textbooks, mind you. That's an unrealistic and simplified distillation not actually practiced by scientists.)

May people think there are laws in science. Permanent, perfect, and absolute truths that explain a whole set of observations. I was recently scolded for this notion by a commenter on a right-wing blog who educated me on the fact that Newtonian Gravity had achieved "law" status, by someone who was clearly not familiar with General Relativity.

We do a disservice to the essence of science when we invoke the term "law." No principle in science is safe from attack, dismemberment, and replacement. And we like it that way. We work to produce the best model we can. But nothing is considered permanent.

If Special Relativity must be discarded into the dustbin of science, it can keep company with the luminiferous aether, phlogiston, and so on. And science will rejoice and be happy in it.

Then again. and I hate to even mention this while the big media ballyhoo still lingers in the air, it might be there was an error somewhere in the faster-than-light neutrino study. If that turns out to be the case, don't look for article in the mainstream media detailing where the research went wrong. There's no sexy there. No collapsing pillars of science imagery to evoke. And how many column-inches is anyone going to devote to "oops" or "never mind"?

As ever, xkcd sums it up nicely (click to embiggen):

Hat tip to Bernard Cleyet.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

You know school is in full swing when...

To some, it may be the first day of school. For others, it's Back to School Night. What annual milestone is your indication that summer is over and the school year is on "for reals"?

First progress grade reports are due? (When I started teaching, this was at the end of October. They were referred to as "Quarter Grades." This year, it's September 27. You could call them "Eighthly Grades," or "Monthly Grades," or "How did we go from 4 grading interims to 8 grading interims and how much smarter are students as a result?")

The end of the first 20 days of class leveling? (And a slowing of the revolving door.) This is the time of year when teachers announce their newest "adds" in the faculty room like old fighters showing off scars. The real problem lies in the expectation that, four weeks into the year, a teacher has some magical technique that will bring a new student from zero to completely-caught-up in short order and without pain. And without any negative consequence on that first round of eighthly grades.

First parent conference? Haven't had one (yet), but we all know that can't last.

First JB-Weld repair job? This year mine was on a Pasco Visual Accelerometer. I'm not sure how the interior thumbscrew anchor post got fractured, but it did.

In related news, I noticed the milk I bought today will not expire until after paycheck breakfast. Huzzah!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Der tischdeckentrick - episches ausfallen

Michel and Sven! Will they never learn?

After my classes howled with laughter at this "epic fail," we discussed the clues to the disingenuous nature of the clip. And a good time was had by all.

We'll all remember Michel with great fondness. A student told me the two are young actors in a troupe of some sort; this was a well-choreographed skit. You'll find lesser Michel and Sven tablecloth trick "fails" on YouTube as well. Mostly they dump things onto the floor by pulling the tablecloth too slowly.

Hat tip to Richard Wiseman.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Physics 1: Introduction to Motion (newly revised)

I've more or less finalized my new first unit in Physics 1. It blends the old first unit ("Preliminaries") with the first half of the old second unit ("Motion & Inertia").

It spans the beginning of the year to all the motion as we need to cover. That is, it goes from the introduction all the way to the end of motion: Introduction to Motion.

Unit 1.01 Introduction to Motion Schedule

The Book of Phyz - Unit 1.01 Introduction to Motion

Some Unit 1 lessons "bleed" over into Unit 2 (Newton's Laws). They serve as homework when there is otherwise no homework for students to do, such as a night following a lab day.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

No pretense of wisdom

I woke up on Tuesday, September 11, 2001 as I did any other work day: to NPR's Morning Edition. The program includes news updates at regular intervals among long-form stories and features. News of a plane striking the World Trade Center entered the update loop. Not fully awake and alert, I envisioned a low-altitude Cessna somehow lost in morning clouds.

I had no idea.

The other tower was hit. These were passenger jets. And the skies over New York were clear. I eventually turned on my television. (My television is rarely on and is never on in the morning.) Horror from Washington DC was added to horror from NYC. A terrorist attack was underway, and there was no knowing what—if anything—was next.

But school was to start at its regular time, so that's where I needed to be. My colleague, Lucy Jeffries, had a small (5"-screen small) TV in her classroom. I asked her for an update before the start of first period. My recollection is that by then, a plane had also gone down in the farmlands of Pennsylvania. And one tower had fallen. I had known that from the radio coverage, but it was good to make contact with a colleague.

A national tragedy was in the midst of unfolding. It was bad, but little was known. And the first period tardy bell rang on schedule.

What to do? There was no reason to think that there would be any modifications to the school day schedule (and there were none). There were no directives from the school's administration, and none could reasonably have been expected. There you are, classroom physics teacher: a terrorist attack under way on the other side of the country, 30 students in class, and the bell has rung.

I could have sat on a table and rapped with the students, letting them express their feelings and theories about the attack while offering sagely comfort that everything was going to be alright. Would they then repeat this exercise in periods 2 through 6? Would that be a wise way to spend the day? I didn't think so.

I could have tuned into CNN for live coverage and kept the TV going all day, watching the horror unfold on live TV. Towers collapsing, fires burning, bodies falling, and the most horrific images being replayed over and over. My aversion to TV would not have allowed me to do that. As it was, my TV monitor had neither a functional cable connection nor an operational antenna. So live viewing was not an option for me. It was an option in some classrooms, and there were teachers who elected this option.

What did I do? I proceeded with the day's scheduled lesson on motion. Toned down and gentle. But physics. That's what we did.

My head was not in the sand. I did acknowledge the news of the day. I told the students that they would never forget the date or the events of the day. A student asked, "Why 9/11?" I told him that—most likely—that was the day the terrorists were ready to implement their attack. Nothing poetic or symbolic. Just logistical.

By the end of the day, a memo was cobbled together by the school's administration and copied for distribution to all 6th period students. They were to take the memo home to their parents. The memo assured parents that, among other things, none of the classrooms were watching live coverage of the attacks or the aftermath. By then it was clear that watching victims jump to their deaths was inappropriate viewing material for students.

The memo was true for my classroom. I have reason to suspect it was not true of all the classrooms at the school. Prior to that reassuring memo, there had been no administrative directive against watching live coverage. To the best of my knowledge, administrators had not been out in any classrooms that day. So they had no direct knowledge of what was going on in classrooms. And so I saw the memo as an unintentional misrepresentation intended to provide comfort rather than an intentional breech of trust.

I thought about a bright-eyed, optimistic, spirited, joyful student named Gillian who had just begun classes at NYU. She was a key member of PhyzGang 2000, a group of friends who seemed to be having a party that coincided with my 6th period physics class of 1999-2000 and AP Physics 2000-2001. The attacks damaged us all, and real human tragedies occurred on 9/11. But I hated to think of her being in the shadows of the towers as they fell, for what that might do to her.

It was an awful day, and its black cloud was slow to dissipate. As a school, our attempts to mourn the events were heartfelt but at times awkward. I believe it was at the one week anniversary that students were assembled during class time for a remembrance: When a student leader was given the microphone he led the public school student body in prayer. Anyone offended by the notion of public school students being led in prayer during school time was expected to bite his or her tongue out of respect.

It wasn't clear whether or not student-led prayer was to become a regular feature of the mandatory memorials, so prior to the next one (the one month anniversary?) I prepared a simple sign that assured anyone who saw it that "It's OK not to pray." Producing and posting such a thing put a bull's eye on me as being a jerk, but I am such a big fan of church-state separation.

I had occasion to take a commercial flight a few weeks after 9/11. Airport parking had been reconfigured, enhanced security checks, and the uniformed military personnel armed with M16s served as a reminder that the world was now a different place.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Advice for parents of students

I've mentioned before that I've got it pretty good where I teach. Parents are involved in their children's educations and in the school. Highly involved parents are a great thing 99% of the time.

But there is that other 1%. And with student loads of 165, a teacher is likely to encounter a bad experience or two.

Teacher extraordinaire, Ron Clark, penned a note that puts a voice to frustrations teachers have with parents, The behaviors he lists are trending upward.

The article is short, but here are a few highlights.

"If we give you advice, don't fight it. Take it, and digest it in the same way you would consider advice from a doctor or lawyer. I have become used to some parents who just don't want to hear anything negative about their child, but sometimes if you're willing to take early warning advice to heart, it can help you head off an issue that could become much greater in the future."

"If you don't want your child to end up 25 and jobless, sitting on your couch eating potato chips, then stop making excuses for why they aren't succeeding. Instead, focus on finding solutions."

"If we give a child a 79 on a project, then that is what the child deserves. Don't set up a time to meet with me to negotiate extra credit for an 80. It's a 79, regardless of whether you think it should be a B+."

"I had a child cheat on a test, and his parents threatened to call a lawyer because I was labeling him a criminal. I know that sounds crazy, but principals all across the country are telling me that more and more lawyers are accompanying parents for school meetings dealing with their children."

I know there are some awful teachers out there. Education is not valued highly enough to keep them out of the profession. But while legislation is passed to hold teachers accountable for this, that, and the other, none is so much as proposed to hold parents accountable for much of anything.

When a school works, it does so because the community works together. Parents parent, teachers teach, administrators administrate. And students learn.

Friday, September 09, 2011

I am done with motion

If you want to call me crazy, the line forms to the rear.

But we had our first unit test today in Rio's Physics 1 course, so as of 2:50pm on Friday, September 9, we are done with motion. On Monday, we move on to Newton's laws and physics!

Kinematics can be many kinds of fun. But for my taste, it's not worth one month while the curriculum clock is ticking. It's applied math, for heaven's sake! And no, it's not the foundation upon which the entirety of introductory physics rests.

Is acceleration a difficult concept for first-year physics students to learn? Absolutely. I rank it as the most difficult concept students will confront in intro physics. So you can spend a month teaching it while mastery continues to elude many students.

But why would you?

Which part of the sky will collapse behind your students not mastering the subtle intricacies of the second derivative of the position function? None of it!

Universal mastery of acceleration is not required before you can pull out of the harbor of kinematics and set sail in the ocean of physics. So don't sacrifice one tenth of your school year chasing such mastery while engaging topics in actual physics get pushed off the table at the other end of the year.

You've got 180 days and a full palette of robust physics topics to get to. Pre-newtonian applied math does not merit an expenditure of 18 of those days. Tempus fugit! Is mastery of kinematics so important that any talk of rainbows, mirages, or the blue sky should be banished from the intro course? Or is it electricity and magnetism that should be left behind? Shall we presume that All Things Heat & Thermo are covered in chemistry, so it's OK to skip any/all such material in physics?

Something must be thrown under the bus if kinematics mastery is to be achieved. What should it be?

Whatever it is, I've got a nickel that says it's a more "legitimate" physics topic than acceleration. So my advice is to ditch the ticker-tape and (I'll say it) robust video motion analysis of projectile trajectories. That stuff might be all manner of groovy, but it's overkill in the introductory course. Few high school students need to master kinematics to secure their future career. Those who do will have more chances in college to lock such things in. In the meantime, the clock is ticking on your 180 days.

Don't keep physics waiting!

Monday, September 05, 2011

Are you ready for some PHYSICS?

The season-opening PTSOS Physics Teacher Workshop will be held Saturday, September 17, at Los Gatos High School. That's Dan Burns' high school. (Paul Robinson has retired, so PTSOS workshops will no longer be held at San Mateo High School.)

Sacramento's "home-opener" will be Saturday, October 1, at Rio Americano High School. Dean Baird and Steve Keith are your hosts for the workshop.

The theme for Workshop 1 is mechanics and the beginning of the school year. Motion, forces, energy, momentum, gravity, and rotation, as well as ideas on how to start the year right and communicate to parents at Back-to-School Night. The themes are set, but the workshop paths wander in different directions every year. We specialize in tangents!

If you haven't yet registered, get on over to for more info, and send a note to Stephanie Finander to sign up. Registration is free, but we order serious goodies for participants.

In the meantime, here are some photos from workshops held last year.

PTSOS San Mateo 2010-11
PTSOS Sacramento 2010-11

Friday, September 02, 2011

Goodwin Liu's big day

I don't presume to know if Thursday ranked as high as fourth in the greatest days of Goodwin Liu's life. But is was a big day. And fourth is as high as it could reasonably be expected to rank, since he is married with two children.

Goodwin Liu was sworn in as a Justice of the California Supreme Court by Governor Brown at a private ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda on Thursday. My Rio Americano colleague, English teacher June Gatewood, and I attended as invited guests of our former student. Our pride in Goodwin could be eclipsed only by that of his parents, Yang-Ching and Wen-Pen. I love this photo from the confirmation hearing on Wednesday.

Thursday's swearing-in ceremony marked the first time I had ever been inside the Capitol. Mrs. Gatewood and I were honored to have been invited by Professor Liu. If I told you I wasn't completely giddy, I'd be telling you a lie.

We were seated directly behind other Supreme Court Justices and in among important dignitaries such as Attorney General Kamala Harris. If I were more "in the know," I'm sure I would have recognized the other high-power officials that surrounded us.

The ceremony was brief: introductory comments from Governor Jerry Brown, an enthusiastic welcoming statement from Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, an address from Professor Liu, and the swearing in. Goodwin's wife, Ann O'Leary—an accomplished professional in her own right—smoothly kept the couple's young daughter, Violet, and toddler, Emmett, suitably entertained during the ceremony. I sat rapt by the whole affair, beaming with pride, joy, and delight. Little Emmett, however, expressed concern that the ceremony ran a bit long.

Two Rio Mirada student journalists obtained press credentials and documented the ceremony for the school newspaper.

A reception was held in the governor's office following the ceremony. Mrs. Gatewood and I enjoyed some snacks. She eventually left, but I stayed. I got a chance to greet the Governor and thank him for making an excellent selection.

After the crowd thinned somewhat, I sat with Goodwin's parents and thanked them for raising two outstanding boys. Goodwin's brother, Kingsway, is a respected surgeon at Kaiser Permanente's Fremont Medical Center. He graduated from Rio just before I arrived. Mrs. Liu deflected the praise and insisted her boys did it all, themselves. She is sweet and charming, but I wasn't buying her argument. Mr. Liu was as aglow with pride as I've ever seen any father. If the smile ever left his face, I didn't see it.

The throng of well-wishers eventually slowed, and Mrs. Liu summoned Goodwin's attention. Decorum aside, I shook the Justice's hand and pulled him into Hug Harbor! We caught up for a bit; and it struck me how little he's changed. He's almost completely the Goodwin Liu I remember from 25 years ago!  Mrs. Liu kindly snapped a photo so I could have my very own groupie shot!

I know, I know; I should have set the fill-in flash! If you knew how delirious with joy I was, you'd forgive my inattention to photographic details. I'll remain buzzed with the joy of this event for some time. I am proud of Goodwin and delighted for the great state of California. I hope life for the Lius quiets down a bit now and they get some rest and relaxation. I know I'll sleep better knowing that Goodwin Liu will be weighing in on the state's most important legal matters.