Friday, June 29, 2012

What You Will

You can't see that Malvolio's cross-gartered stockings are bright yellow.
I have been lucky enough to recently come into possession of an Android phone. One of my favourite things about having such a clever phone is the Kindle app. I can put so many beautiful books in my pocket and there are many many many of them for which I don't even have to pay. A consequence of this is that this morning I (re)read Twelfth Night. I first read it in high school, inspired, I think, by Shakespeare in Love, which was our grade twelve English film study. (I know I wrote an essay comparing the film and the play, but I don't remember exactly why I chose that topic or if I read the play specifically for the essay.) I realised recently that I haven't touched Shakespeare since starting university and today I remembered just why that really is a pity.

Plays are fun to read and Shakespeare is just plain clever. I can fly from my cosy curled-up armchair spot to the Globe theatre; to the private showing at Candlemas 1602; to a performance in a modern theatre; to the director's chair at rehearsals; to the tech crew's  scaffolding and lighting board; to that half-enchanted land of Illyria where, ghost-like, I anxiously watch Viola extract herself from the horrible mess that Sir Toby and Fabian have taken it upon themselves to create. It's quite glorious. I daresay I miss some things and misinterpret others; but the stuff wasn't written, I don't think, so much to be analysed as to be enjoyed. Analysis will inevitably proceed from the enjoyment and some folk will carry that out in great detail. That is one good thing. Also a good thing is those of us left feeling awfully lucky that there's another play and another and another to be downloaded at the click of a button.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


(Two sides of the same coin)

Mathematics, like poetry,
half-conceals truths
so abstract that,
were they made explicit,
the very substance of the universe
would burn.

You must learn what they
can express
to understand
what they can't.
 Lauren (aka SilverInkblot) of Autumn Brontide has been writing poetry in a series she calls "A Poetic Education". (The poemish thing above is part of my attempt at a response.)  My favourite so far is Half. The series is, I think, an interesting exploration of learning and schooling and education and how the three get tangled up together or end up (very sadly) excluding each other. I muddled around what she'd written a little, and she responded and expanded on her thoughts here. In consequence, I am thinking about education.

I read a few blogs about homeschooling, higher education and occasionally both. They're interesting, but I don't often do anything about them. I'm not a homeschooler. I'm not  a university professor. I guess I do a little bit of TA-ish work, but I've yet to discover a blog about those sorts of things! Despite that, I think it's worth reading those blogs.

Partly, they're just interesting. If something's interesting, I like to learn more about it. (Perhaps this is because I'm lucky in having received an education that by and large nurtured my love of learning, rather than crushing it.) Partly, I think they're useful even when I don't immediately act on them. Becoming aware of how education and learning work means that if I do end up making a decision about them, I have data to work with. And I'm sure I make minute day-to-day choices slightly differently when I make them against a broader background.

That is, I think awareness makes a difference and I think that an education -- even an education on education -- has to be built up over time. Which is why I think that saying something about it will almost always be better than saying nothing, even if the something has to be accompanied by and admission that it's a long way from being everything. I don't think the difficulties education has to overcome can go away overnight. But by engaging with them and thinking about them, we make change possible.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Trends and Community

Exams are finished! I'm not sure it's possible to adequately express my glee about this in writing. I am not an exam person. (Lest you think that redundant, let me assure you that I have on occasion met people who do handle exams with poise and grace.) Presently I will go home, see my family and laze around reading analysis textbooks. In the meantime, I am working at university, which is quite* cool.

The work I'm doing involves going way back through the archives of academic journals and sorting out which papers are relevant for one of my lecturer's projects. One of the side-effects is that I get to see a little bit of the flow of physics research over time.

It's weird to see the papers people were writing when I was still learning to read, all put together in a sort of conversation. It's no surprise that people were doing physics when I was a kid (I've certainly used papers from way before I was born before), but it is a little odd to find this community that I can never really know preserved in the pages (or pdf files) of the Am. J. Phys.

It's also interesting to see how different topics go in and out of vogue. There's always a certain amount of mechanics, quantum physics, electromagnetism and so on, but there are time periods when certain things crop up repeatedly and quite frequently. For instance there were a couple of years that saw a cluster of papers about the charge on a magnetised needle; during another phase it seemed quite fashionable to deal with surface tension problems. I think it's fascinating that such trends exist.

I'm not sure if these patterns have much direct practical application, but I do think they're useful in getting know physics. I recall once reading somewhere that before trying to participate in an internet forum, it can be helpful to 'lurk' and see how things are done there. I guess the academic equivalent is reading all the way back through the journal archives.
*Where 'quite' means 'extraordinarily, but that seems potentially like an over-the-top response, so I'll just say quite,'