Matt's Blog

Conferenced out

Sat Dec 9 09:19:15 EST 2006

For the last week I've been at the Australian Institute of Physics Congress here in Brisbane. It covered a wide range of topics with sessions running in parallel, so I didn't get to see everything (also it went from 8:30am until 8pm or later each day so I was a bit shattered by Thursday). Highlights:

  • Physics and Education talks, especially the plenary talk by Eric Mazur on interactive teaching. The basic idea is to get the students to do prereading before the lecture, then discuss the reading in small groups and as a class during the lecture. This is a more interactive approach and lets peers discuss conceptual problems in a language that is natural for them, as opposed to the lecturer attempting to translate his mental picture back to the students' level. A similar approach is taken in the Oxford tutorial system, which begs the question of whether the advantage of the Oxford system arises from the small class size, or by the method of teaching by discussion between peers and a tutor.

    Given the present funding environment in higher education in general, and the move away from tutorials in Oxford in particular, a move towards peer based instruction may be the most natural way of transitioning from a small to large class size.

    • Sidenote: in my undergraduate studies at the University of Western Australia some attempt was made at peer instruction in the first year by having tutorials with 15 students and a tutor on the problem from the previous week, as part of a three hour lab slot consisting of tutorial, lab and writeup. Unfortunately I don't think this worked all that well, as the tutorial was still driven by the tutor asking questions of the class as a whole rather than having discussion between students. In contrast, my third year of physics studies was very good for peer discussion and unravelling conceptual problems. By this stage I had the mathematical abilities honed and had been part of the same (ever decreasing) circle of physics students so there were no problems interacting socially. Crucially, the department gave the third year physicists a common room where they could go to work at any time of day (pin code access, honours system for snacks, computer facilities, some lab equipment for the third year labs). This meant that when assignments were due the whole class would be in the room working on and discussing the assignment. Of course this lead to the possibility of rampant plaigarism, but this tended not to happen since the assignments were generally only a small fraction of the overall grade (if they were worth anything at all), and by third year the people left doing physics were the ones that wanted to understand physics not just get good marks.
  • Panel discussion on whether Australia should use nuclear power. This was not as heated as I expected, despite having a wide range of viewpoints on the panel. "A wide range" means a balance of people who stand to benefit if Australia goes the nuclear route, and those who benefit if it goes the renewable enrgy route. The discussion involved audience participation using RF clickers to vote on the questions posed to the panel. Results below (N about 240 people, varied +/- 5-10 people over the course of the panel):

    • "Is nuclear power technically feasible for Australia?"
    • Yes: 88%, No: 4%, Undecided: 9% (rounding error of 1%?)
    • "Is nuclear power economically feasible for Australia?"
    • Yes: 29%, No: 29%, Undecided: 42%
    • "Should Australia accept waste from overseas?"
    • Yes: 42%, No: 43%, Undecided: 15%
    • "Does the expansion of nuclear power promote weapons proliferation?"
    • Yes: 48%, No: 41%, Undecided: 11%
    • "Should Australia use nuclear power in the next 20 years?"
    • Yes: 52%, No: 35%, Undecided: 13%

    Quite interesting discussion, probably irrelevant in the grand scheme of things - with the prevailing attitudes towards nuclear power (basically "evil! Chernobyl! Radiation!" etc) the government would only raise the question of whether to use nuclear power if it had already decided to do so and was trying to break it to the country gently.

  • Lots of interesting work with frequency standards and optical frequency synthesis with frequency combs, mainly from the UWA group. Optical frequency synthesis is particularly fun - it looks plausible that within a few years you will be able to buy a box with a dial on the front that outputs monochromatic light anywhere in the visible spectrum. Useful tool for biotechnology, security, media, nanotechnology - actually most areas.

    Jan Hall made an insightful comment in his plenary about how frequency combs can be used to distribute primary length standards, and how this relates to globalisation of industry. At the moment it is possible to construct a device (say a car) using components produced by a number of different countries. The problem arises when you come to assemble the car - unless the tolerances are quite loose the components will have trouble fitting together due to different reference lengths in the different countries. With a primary standard everything is referenced to a fundamental physical quantity such as the frequency of an atomic transition. This will be identical anywhere in the world, so there is a common basis for manufacturing.

  • As always lots of BEC theorists each with their own "interesting" solution of the non-linear Schroedinger equation. Blah. Although, I have a theorist friend with a similar attitude to "lots of experimental talks, each with their own 'interesting' experimental setups"...

[me] [physics]


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