Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Being a fresher - part two.

This is part two of a two part post. Part one is here

A couple of weeks ago I started this post with a bit of reflection on my journey to Nottingham as a first year undergraduate way back in 2002.

After I wrote that post, I had an unexpected job to do that made me feel as though my physics career had come around full circle, as life in general seems to have the ability to do, and almost always more than once. The big boss was away and I had to cover his first year physics tutorials. Hmm, I suppose I'd better look at the questions then, I thought. Wouldn't want to look silly, would I?

1. A ball is thrown vertically into the air and reaches a maximum height of 12 metres. What speed has it reached when it is 0.5 m from the ground, on the way down?

Hints. You are on planet Earth. Neglect air resistance.

(OK, not one of the real questions. The questions' identities have been changed to protect the innocent.)

I was immediately transported back to the very first week of physics at Nottingham where problem sheets were handed out each Monday morning, to be handed in complete by 9am the following Monday. 'There are a lot of questions', I remember saying to my tutor. 'People are saying the homework is taking them about ten hours', I gasped.

'Yes, ten hours sounds about right', said he, to my utter horror.

Ten hours! I had checked my timetable and seen that I had about 20 contact hours (lectures, labs) or thereabouts each week, and was thinking, bingo: plenty of time for guitar playing, eating, general self-indulgent introspection, and facial hair experimentation. But seriously, my main conclusion was that this whole 'uni' thing was going to be fairly easy, each 'spare' hour would be spent with the aforementioned diversions, and my general off-the-wall enthusiasm and devil-may-care approach to physics problem solving would see me through, lecture courses would simply flow into my brain via osmosis; the mere fact that I owned a text book or two would make the difference, and they would be etching my name on the Class Champion Trophy months, nay, years ahead of graduation.

But oh how desperately wrong I was. My first year undergraduate physics course had clearly been designed to sort the intellectual wheat from the chaff, and I was in the process of being severely beaten on the threshing floor of science.

My friends and I would normally get round to looking at the question sheets at about 3pm on Sunday afternoon. We would get some of them done, morale would go up. We would get stuck, morale would go down. We would come to the realisation that we would need to give up before the questions were done, then came acceptance, and then, if time, came the Pub.

The simple fact was that getting the homework done was only part of the problem. At that stage of my life, just getting to the department for 9am to hand the darned things in was quite a significant challenge. This could have been due to having been in the Pub, but there was something deeper. I just didn't have what it took to turn up at given places, at given times. It was remarkably frustrating to live through yet I never seemed able to take positive action about it (set... and obey... an alarm... near the time you need to get up...)

It's wrong. Stick a line through it.

Anyway, the solutions to the problems would be posted up behind glass in wooden-framed notice boards, the physicsy contraband, which one was of course expected to study diligently, learning from one's mistakes and generally growing as a person. I did used to go and look, and I healed and grew as a result. I was often wowed by the beauty and simplicity of the answers. I was also often shocked by the complexity of what I was expected to have done.

Anyway, anyway, the first year physics tutorials. Well the students were bloody bright and a credit to themselves. I don't think I was that good when I was in their shoes. I hope they weren't living through some of the (metaphorical) tooth-grinding, low-confidence, lack of self-motivation that I was when I was their age (thought if they were lucky they were producing the kind of mindblowingly original facial hair designs and general cultural wizardry that I was). I suppose what I'm getting at is that when you are 18-19 years old, you are busy being just that. You are at the start of your cultural and intellectual prime, yet you are in a foreign city (usually), doing really hard work, being challenged and stimulated in ways and on magnitudes that you haven't experienced before. Hats off to the brainy buggers.

What did they think of me though? It was quite weird. I'm clearly a bit younger than your average Prof, so therefore a bit cooler and more down with the kids. Right? Put them at their ease, have a few chuckles. Yes? Well, they could probably tell I wasn't as experienced as a Prof. (i.e. I am not a Prof at all. MPW), that one thing is for sure. I may do them discredit here, but I somehow doubt it crossed their minds to think of me as just a version of them, a mirror 11 years into their future, that my very being there with them meant that I sat where they sat once, albeit in a different city, cause it really doesn't feel that long ago, not long at all, since I was piling those things into the back of my Dad's car.

This is part two of a two part post. Part one is here

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Being a fresher - part one.

This is part one of a two part post. Part two is here

I look out of my ivory tower and I see the students milling like tiny ants far below in the concourse of The University of Sheffield and I know that time has come again: as a new academic year dawns, the fabled fresh autumn air blows in with its breath of hope, germs, and anticipation.

The shifting currents of air accompany a profound and irreversible change in the lives of many thousands of students coming to study at university for the first time. The freshers that have made it to Sheffield have already embarked upon one of the most incredible journeys this old life has to offer, hungry for achievement and academic glory, but above all else, sandwiches, as the new 12 o'clock queue at John's Van proves.

A word on procrastination. I had planned to write a post marking 10 years since I was a fresher myself - the days of heady optimism in a blustery autumn in Nottingham. Well, I started writing that about a year ago, but all sorts of work and devilry got in the way in the intervening time. So here we are again, 10, nay, 11 years since I was first a fresher. Here are a few thoughts on what it meant to me - though I wish I could remember better.

I packed select contents of my bedroom into the boot of my Dad's car, without much forethought or any sort of 'box' system, a sort of loose pile of objects, and we made the approximately 1 hour trip up the M1 motorway to Nottingham. There's a big gap in my memory (I had a comprehensive education, there are all these comprehensive gaps...), and although I'm sure we did something nice in the intervening time, before too long anyway my Dad was making the right turn onto the Derby Road with a yawning chasm of space and a silence around him in the car - how he must have felt at that moment, I do not know, or maybe he just put on some music. But anyway, there it was, the finality of it: I was now in Nottingham, alone in a renting house. I was at Uni.

Why was I not in halls? Nottingham was my second choice University and by the time I had confirmed the place, it was too late for a place in halls.

I can clearly remember that the landlord had not finished decorating the place, having perhaps expected me a day or so later, but I distinctly recall a lady being in to clean the property as I unpacked. I had just made my bed for the first time with my orange-and-brown hand-me-down duvet cover. Now, I loved that duvet cover, but I get a pang of sadness when I remember this lady chatting to me. She saw the bed made up and said, 'that's nice, duck'. Could she have really liked it, or could she have just seen this poor lost boy and felt sorry for him? It's too long ago to be sure now.

What I was sure of in the year 2002 though was, I was no lost boy, but a roaring lion of a man! I was 18 years old, yes, a big manly 18-year-old. I had good A-levels in clever subjects. I was a musician, in a band, I was a tough Coventrian, I had a stripy beard. What more proof required? Yes, I had shaved stripes into my beard, and wore wooden beads around my neck that came from H&M Hennes. I don't have a picture to illustrate this specimen of a man, but some from a few months later, sans stripes, show the great hulking example of masculinity that I was.

Above: It's not piss. Below: two feet, one sock. (Thanks to Tea Hole).
What does this have to do with science though? you may or may not ask. Well, I had come to Nottingham to study physics. In the next bit of this post (it's getting a bit long, and I'm supposed to be working), I'll write about what it was like for me to be a first year physics student.

This is part one of a two part post. Part two is here