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June 2012 Archives

Technology is changing how education is done. Anyone my age (shall we say larger, but not much larger, than 40) who has gone into a school recently will see that it's vastly different from what they themselves experienced at school. Technology abounds, and the children are using it. Also, university is vastly different from what I experienced just 20 years or so ago. While we had computers, they weren't common-place things - in fact we had a couple of special 'computer projects' as part of our degree which taught us how to use them and program them. If we wanted to use a computer, it was a case of going out in the cold to one of the computer labs and, if you were lucky, you found a free terminal (going out late at night, especially if it was snowing, gave you a better chance of finding one available). The internet was just beginning. Email was a quirky little toy - not something we ever did anything serious with.

But, deep down, at university level, how much has really changed? Sure, every student has their own laptop and i-wotsit, and many of our classes are recorded and posted online for later viewing - with nice printed lecture notes available to download, etc. But, fundamentally, students still come to lectures, sit on long rows of seats in a lecture theatre with their backs to other students, do practical classes, write assignments and go through the stressful process of exams (in our case twice a year). And still, the majority of their lecturers, who are recruited and promoted on their research credentials, actually have no more than a  'gut feeling' of whether they are giving their students a good education or not, because there isn't any incentive for them to go and find out.

However, things may be about to change in a BIG way.  Harvard and MIT (I don't mean the optimistically-named South Auckland Institution here) have just stirred-up the tertiary education system with the launch of edX. They are offering FREE on-line courses, to whoever has the internet available, no matter what country they are from, or what income they have. And these aren't just a few notes chucked on Wikipedia for people to read. It's a properly thought-out system of quality education - one of the basic ideas is that it has the same quality and rigour as anything Harvard or MIT would offer for their 'normal' students. It's interactive, taught by the top people, and rigorously assessed. You get a Harvard / MIT education, but at minimal cost. True, the institutions emphasize that completing the course doesn't mean you can claim to have a degree from Harvard or MIT - or get to have one-on-one discussions with your teachers in their offices (try that with half a million students in a class) - but the idea is that it provides the education for all, and an educated world is a good thing.

Universities need to take note of what is happening here. Their role might be about to change significantly. Why should a student enrol at Waikato (and I pick on Waikato simply because it's my university) and take on a lot of debt for a tertiary education which may require them to relocate, come to classes everyday, and generally re-organize their life (though often in a good way), when they can get what is internationally recognized as a quality product for no cost?  What is a university for? What does a student get from it?  If EdX is successful, I believe we will see these questions come suddenly  to the foreground, and our tertiary organizations would do well to prepare for it.

Incidently, the video on the edX launch page is well worth listening to. What's really great is hearing people very high up in the organizational system of these universities talking about ensuring quality learning.






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I made the brave decision yesterday to attend a seminar in the Computer Science department. I used to like computer science as a teenager - I was one of those geeks who wrote their own computer games - but in latter times I've stuck with the physics and used computers begrudgingly as a means of doing my mathematical calculations.

And my preconceptions were partly justified, as it was a little bit geeky. But it was also pretty interesting. The seminar concerned the numerical implementation of the Fourier Transform (FT). This is a piece of maths that is incredibly useful in physics. It arises in fields as diverse as image processing, optics, solid-state physics, thermodynamics, particle physics, astronomy; even my brain dynamics work uses a lot of Fourier Transforms.  FTs are used to a vast extent in telecommunications. I hope you get the picture that they are really useful things and physics wouldn't be the same without them.

I won't go into detail about what a FT is, but in short it involves describing a signal as a sum of waves of different frequencies. Doing this can make problems in physics a whole lot easier. Now, computing a FT, although simple in concept, is not a trivial undertaking. It takes a lot of CPU time. It was estimated by Cray that in 1990 some 40% of its super-computer cycles were spent on calculating FTs for one application or another. There has been a huge amount of research dedicated to speeding up the calculation of FTs.  This seminar, by  PhD student Antony Blake, showed an improved method. He nicely presented some plots which showed his implementation of the FT was, generally speaking, better than other products in existence. Well done the student! It shows if nothing else that PhD students can take on the world when it comes to research, and win.

One amusing factoid that Antony mentioned was on the history of the bulk-standard fast Fourier Transform algorithm, invented by Cooley and Tukey in 1965. At the time, this implementation was of great significance, since it was quick (hence the name 'Fast Fourier Transform'), and allowed one to handle large sets of data.  However, a bit of delving into archives showed that it wasn't Cooley and Tukey who first used the algorithm - it was Carl Friedrich Gauss, in 1805, who used it for astronomical calculations even before Joseph Fourier had formulated the transform that bears his name! In Gauss' case, his use of it was even more remarkable, since he had to do the calculations by hand!  Gauss was one of those insanely clever mathematicians who only come around once a century or so.




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Well, looks like winter has finally arrived here. There's not much worse weather-wise than having a clear night with the cloud rolling in just as the sun rises. The clear night lets the temperature drop, as the ground radiates away more energy than it receives from the atmosphere and surrounding objects, and then the clouds stop the sun from warming the place up again.

Last weekend, we were getting odds and ends for the house, and I looked at thermometers for the baby's room. (And, needless to add, still no baby.)  I was surprised to see that it is still legal to sell mercury thermometers here. They aren't easy things to deal with at home  if you happen to break one. But, safety aside, I wouldn't buy a mercury thermometer anyway, since they can be so unreliable. I illustrated this to Karen by pulling off five from their hooks, and looking at the range of temperatures they showed - the lowest was reading 16 degrees while the highest was recording 18.5 degrees C.  I suppose I could have got one that was reading in the middle.

I had a thermometer once that I calibrated by putting it into an ice-water mix, which should sit at 0 degrees if the water is reasonably pure. This particular thermometer read 3 degrees. With a calibration, at least you know where you are with it, but it still bugged me every time I read it.

Also, on a similar note, at one of our Osborne Physics and Engineering lectures a few years ago, a colleague of mine demonstrated this with a couple of mercury thermometers in a bucket of water. He asked the audience, a group of year 12 and year 13 school children, why they were reading different temperatures. There were some amazing answers put forward, involving some whacky thermodynamical thinking as to why one side of the bucket was strangely warmer than the other side. As far as I recall, no-one suggested that the thermometers could simply be lousy.

Which brings me to the point of all this. Next semester I teach my Experimental Physics paper, and one of the most useful things students will learn is never to blindly trust what a measurement device tells them.  Always ask, 'how do I know it's telling the truth?'




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Brrrrr.  It was so cold this morning I had to wipe the Bose-Einstein condensation off the windows.

Perhaps more amusing was the sight I saw on the edge of the road this morning on my way into work. The 'white-line painting crew' had clearly been out remarking the road. The white line on the left hand edge of the road was now brilliantly clear, and went straight over the top of a squished possum. The question is, was it the line-marking machine that squished the possum, or could the crew just not be bothered to move the carcass?

On a more physics note, I've been puzzling for a couple of weeks why the underneath of our laundry tub gets damp every time the washing machine is in use. I'd felt around for leaks on the hoses, taps, etc, or leaks in the waste-water plumbing. I'd even waited and watched the machine go through most of a cycle (and just  my luck in that cycle no water appeared at all). Yesterday I solved the problem, however, by systematic investigation of the likely sites for a leak. As it turned out, the cold-water hose wasn't securely attached to the cold-water pipe.

How come that happened? It seems as if it's unscrewed itself. Maybe that's not so surprising given the way the hoses twitch when the machine opens and closes its inlets. When the water is flowing into the machine, it's got momentum. When the machine closes its inlet ports, as it does several times a cycle, it does it really fast. The water in the hose now stops moving, decelerating very quickly. This rapid change in momentum corresponds to a force, which is felt both at the machine end of the hose and at the attachment to the water pipe, and is responsible for the characteristic banging noise that transmits itself along the water-pipe network of the house. The hoses visibly twitch when this happens. My guess is that the cumulative effect of this has unscrewed the hose a little - about a quarter of a turn; enough to cause a bit of water to escape.

 Oh, and finally, before you ask, our baby hasn't arrived yet. We're drifting into the frustrated-wait stage now...



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One of the most interesting talks from last week at the Transit of Venus forum was by Craig Nevill-Manning, the Engineering Director of Google, and, by the way, a graduate of The University of Waikato. He let us in to the ironic secret of Google's success: Google promotes face-to-face meetings. While its products help us to do things in front of our own computer screens or smart phones while stuck in our own offices or cubicles or cars, and to avoid having to interact with humans, Google does not condone the practice from its own employees. Oh, the irony!

Instead, new projects are started through face-to-face meetings, even if this means taking a team of people and flying them to the other side of the world to talk to another group of people. Google have found that personal interaction helps immensely and it's cost-effective.

Craig suggested that it was in the interests of everyone, not just university academics (and believe me  ever-tightening budgets mean this is difficult even for them)  to have sabbaticals. Go and spend six months, or a year, in another country, working with people there, he says. It will give you an appreciation of the ways other people work and what is important to them. That in turn will make it more likely that you'll come up with some really useful innovation in whatever field you work in. New Zealand is an inward looking country (coming from overseas I can attest to that) - we need to change this.

Of course, finding the money for time overseas is difficult. Having just spent two weeks in Sydney, I can attest to how it causes one's bank account to hemorrhage (with the sticking-plaster of funding provided by one's employer rather inadequate for stopping the flow).  But from a work and personal development point of view, it is worth it.

You can listen to Craig's talk here (and access all the Transit of Venus Forum's sessions via YouTube.)  He's the second speaker you'll get on the hour-and-a-half recording.


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That was different! Yesterday no-one expected the sky to be clear enough to see the transit, but see it we did. We had an early start - herded onto buses and shipped up to Uawa/Tolaga Bay - a rather poignant place to see the transit, given that's where Captain Cook arrived in 1759 after viewing the transit in Tahiti.

We squashed onto the marae for a powhiri before undertaking some rather unusual events not usually part of a physicist’s schedule – watching the rededication of the wharf, planting trees, watching the internment of a time capsule, etc, while mingling with the rich and famous. (Well, the famous anyway – my colleague Jo from Chemistry managed to sit next to leader of the opposition, David Shearer, for lunch!) And of course there was plenty of opportunity to view the transit, which has now finished. If you missed it, then you’ll need to wait until 2117 for the next one.



One thing I learned which is vaguely physics, is that my eyes aren’t what they used to be. We were all issued with proper solar glasses to cut out the ultraviolet from the sun, making it safe to view. Unfortunately, I really couldn’t see this dot that most others were talking about. I just saw a dim orange disc. But there were plenty of telescopes around projecting the sun for everyone to have a closer look, and that showed it clearly (plus just a few sunspots). I’ve attached a photo – you should be able to make out Venus in the bottom right of the sun’s disc, close to the edge.


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I learned this interesting factoid last week in a seminar by Les Kirkup on student-led learning. Sticky tape emits x-rays. Honest, it does. It's in Nature.  You can watch the movie here. It's all to do with triboluminesence.

This week I'm at the Transit of Venus forum in Gisborne, along with about 900 other delegates from a broad cross section of New Zealand society. Tomorrow we get bused out to Tolaga Bay to watch the transit (yeah, right - I've seen the weather forecast) and plant trees and undertake other generally cultural and symbolic things; then on Thursday we have a full day of trying to solve all the country's economic problems. It will surely be interesting.

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