I’ve been visiting a few university open days lately. I’ve been struck by huge variations in “feel”. What emerged for me was that the enthusiasm of the lecturer/tutor was pretty important. Technical polish was no match for infectious enthusiasm and a pure delight for discovery. It’s reminded me of the fun of learning new and surprising stuff.
It’s the Physics and astronomy departments I’ve been visiting. Now before you all turn out the light and fall asleep, listen up. I happen to like physics a great deal. It did disturb me to encounter a Professor Moriarty at one establishment – I’m not sure he was the Prof Moriarty, as in the arch enemy of Sherlock Holmes, but I suspect that his colleagues showed him a healthy respect – I mean, wouldn’t you, if there was even a possibility?
Looking at Physics, always reminds me of the quirkiness of the universe. You think you’ve got it all sorted, then it changes. Now, just about everyone’s heard of the wave-particle duality of light. That on a microscopic level it’s particulate (you know, “photons”) and yet on a macroscopic level together they behave like a wave. Electrons (which we mainly think of as particles) do this wave-particle thing too. We use this phenomenon to get images of tiny objects in the jolly useful scanning electron microscope. Now atoms, that’s a safe bet – surely they’re particles? Well, mostly. It turns out, that at very low temperatures they can behave like waves – they do all the interference pattern stuff that light does. These are actually quantum phenomena – it’s difficult to explain them using classical physics.
That’s not the end of the weird, counter-intuitive stuff. You know those high power lasers that can burn holes in skin and sheets of metal? Well, they can be used to cool atoms down. Things like this can be unsettling when you get to middle age and have started to get comfortable with the world, treating it as an old friend before it stabs you in the back. Those astrophysicists probably can’t sleep nights with the thought of all that dark matter and dark radiation out there, that most of the universe seems to be made of stuff that is very different from what we, the stars and planets are made of.
Why am I telling you all of this? I don’t necessarily think you should go off to study physics. Just, be prepared to be surprised and excited by what you find. This is both a challenge and a delight about learning and especially science (though I’m sure there’s surprising stuff elsewhere too). And that’s as it should be. Health and safety isn’t a real subject in its own right – it’s a mix of subjects, with a particular emphasis. It’s got bits of physics, chemistry, maths, materials science, industrial hygiene, psychology, law and more. There’s no excuse to be bored….