Classroom Merlin

/ Stories / By Age / College /

I remember a Life Magazine article highlighting a chemistry professor at Princeton who dramatized his lectures with balls of fire. He choreographed explosions on his lecture table while he gestured and grimaced: the magician in control of a primordial universe.

magician fire
thanx gamespek

The guys at Princeton were apparently entertained; but were they any better instructed in chemistry because their instructor posed as Merlin?

In another couple of years I was at Columbia and Professor Aaron Sachs turned the physics lecture hall into a theater. I knew what he was doing, we all did, but it was very effective non-the-less. The subject was the conservation of momentum: and Sachs had hung a wrecking ball, a huge ugly damn thing, from the apex of the center of the ceiling. There he had afixed a swivel, hung the ball by a chain. Sachs mounted a set of stairs to the front-right corner of the ceiling leading the wrecking ball after him.

stock image

The ball followed Sachs tamely, but we all saw what a monster it was: a slip and it could demolish Pupin Hall. Smiling placidly Sachs led the ball to the corner of the ceiling. He placed his head in the corner: it could go no further: the architecture was already maximally “north” & “east”. He held the ball against his cheek, smiling his placid smile. He let go the ball. It swung away from him. Of course it did, what else would it do? The ball reached the nadir, the bottom of the hall floor. It continued on its south-west path, it ascended the hall toward the far corner, there it paused, just short of destroying that side of the hall. The ball paused, then begam it’s reciiprocal swing, back toward Professor Sachs. Sachs had prizes: was the Nobel among them? Columbia had a couple of Nobels active in 1956. His smile was pasted on his face. There was not one millimeter further into the NE corner that he could retreat. The wrecking ball was unapologetic.

We all knew the physics: the ball would swing like a pendulum. The ball would return to the apex from which it started. It would go exactly as far but no further. Actually, with each jounrey friciton would tax it one fraction of its arc. The ball swung up to Sachs, kissed him gently on the cheek as it were, and swung back away. Sachs let it journey across the hall a couple of times, then restrained it, let it peacefully back to its nadir.

Sachs had faith in the conservation of momentum. The laws of physics were even, immutable, reliable. No devil was going to give the ball an extra kick just because Sachs was in harms way. Having started just outside the arc, Sachs was still outside the arc.

Good showmanship? Definitely. Good teaching? I don’t know. I think we all knew that physics before we got to Columbia.

Anyway, I’m enjoying the hell out of a BBC TV series on math hosted by Professor Marcus duSantoy. I just saw him stage something similar. He built a chute, fit a wrecking ball to it.

Marcus & ball
thanx telegraph

The professor does some calculations, predicts where the ball will land once released down the slide and ejected, marks it with a Brit flag, takes another step further along the path (takes a tiny step to the side of the path) and smiles at the camera. The ball is released. It lands on the British flag! (of course), then rolls along its path (just missing Prof. Marcus. Good theater, good TV.

Once upon a time Moses proved God’s power was superior to that of the Egyptian gods by throwing his staff on the ground and picking it back up as a writhing snake. I bet you can buy that trick now at any bazaar in Cairo, but it wasn’t quite so familiar in Moses’ day: or he’d have tricked the priests with another.

I saw Aaron Sachs brave the wrecking ball in 1956. The Princeton article would have appeared in Life in say 1954. DuSautoy sits to the side of the British flag in the 2010s. Once the god was a god; now the god is physics.

And Education.

Bah. Humbug.

Stories by Theme by Age

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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