So the NZ Institute of Physics conference is in full swing. I have a bit of a break between the end of the last session and tonight's conference dinner, so there's time to give some highlights so far.
Well, first, the low-light: Like the rest of my family and half of Hamilton I've had a horrible cold. On Sunday morning I was wondering whether I'd be able to make any of the conference. But I've managed to hold things together and now I've stopped sneezing I'm rather less infectious than I was at the weekend. So I've been able to get to some of the sessions.
So what's been going on? We've heard from Hans Bachor that after decades of international scientific research into getting lasers to work, the world's first funding application for using lasers was for a 'death ray'. Fortunately, applications have grown well beyond this one (which is still, thankfully, not in place) and far beyond the ideas of the original researchers (i.e. 'blue sky' research can have real value). We've seen edible fibre-optics (basically jelly), and heard from Jenni Adams about the ICE CUBE detector at the South Pole for detecting high-energy neutrinos.
The speed talk session last night gave us a rapid-fire mix-and-match bag of physics research from across the country – from Kannan Ridings' simulations of the melting of metal nanowire's through to Inga Smith's (unanswered) question of why do so few women do physics?
But the real highlight for me has been Eugenia Etkina's inspiring talk yesterday and workshop this morning, on physics laboratory experiments. The basic idea here is that experimental science is done by experts in a particular way (and she has evidence for this), including a cycle of observation, hypothesis, experimental design, prediction-making, experimental testing, then judgement. Experiments by experts are done for particular reasons – either to observe, to test, or to apply. Give a group of scientists a practical problem and they will tackle it in a very systematic way, that usually allows them to get to the bottom of what's happening. Give the same problem to first-year university students, and it's a mess of hypothesis, tesing, judgement, observation all rolled into one. So it then makes sense for us to give students opportunities to carry out the same scientific processes as real scientists. Too often we give them a series of instructions to follow. This isn't how real science works. It simply doesn't help them learn science.
At the end of her talk, Eugenia asked a very simple but really telling question. "How do you know that Newton's third law is true?" My initial answer, to be honest, was: "because the text-books say so". Not the answer of a scientist. Thinking about it a bit more, I can say "because that's what I experience…if I hit something hard it hurts…i.e. if I exert a large force on something it exerts a large force on me". But here's (roughly) what one of Eugenia's students said when given the same question:
"I have carried out many independent tests of this law and have not found a single case where it is violated." Now, that is the response of a real scientist.