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


  1. yeah but whats the bloody answer?!?! I've got 112.7m/s but thats a thurd of the speed of sound so I think Ive made a mistake!!!

    1. Using the equation v^2 = u^2 + 2as (where v is the final speed, u is the initial speed, a is the acceleration and s is the distance). Neglecting air resistance.

      The ball rises to the top, decelerating to a halt under gravity (so u = 0) reaching a height of 12 metres before it falls back down. We want the speed 0.5 m from the ground, therefore it descends s = 11.5 m. The acceleration is that due to gravity = 9.81 ms^-2.

      The final speed is therefore given by v = sqrt(2as)

      = sqrt(2 x 9.81 x 11.5) = 15 m/s.

      That's about 34 mph.