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Lateral Thoughts: Mark Lewney physicsworld.


Weapons of mass instruction
When comedians and musicians are asked what the hard-
est part of their job is, “life on the road” is a common
answer. Yet their touring life comprises only a single daily
performance, given to civilized adults who have volun-
tarily paid to attend. The lecturer for the annual Institute
of Physics schools tour, on the other hand, must perform
twice daily to 14–16 year olds who come along because
their teachers tell them to. You will be heartened to learn
that, in contrast to the aforementioned mollycoddled
prima donnas, I enjoyed every minute of it.
Mine was most definitely a physics lecture, but my secret
“weapons of mass instruction” were music and comedy.
As a semi-professional solo guitarist, I have the ultimate
attention-grabbing prop (the Institute paid for the eye-
catching artwork featuring Planck and Einstein, see pho-
tograph) and a couple of powerful amps are helpful in
“requesting” silence. Numerous other props, magic tricks,
animations and my native Liverpudlian wit (or as more
discerning critics may report, Liverpudlian halfwit) also
ensure that the audience gets some kind of “reward” every
few minutes for following me through some occasionally As a semi- waiting for me, the staff glued my eyebrow back together
challenging physics. professional double quick, allowing me to start the lecture just 10 min-
My lecture, entitled “Rock in 11 dimensions: where utes late, wearing a pair of sunglasses. Luckily, this rock-
physics and guitars collide!” explains the physics of an solo guitarist, star look fitted the theme of the lecture pretty well:
everyday object – the electric guitar – before using this as a I have the everyone wondered who this delinquent was who had
springboard to explore string theory, cosmology and what ultimate come to teach them physics after causing trouble in a
might be detected at the Large Hadron Collider. I took attention- nightclub. I felt no need to inform them that my “alterca-
care to distinguish testable science from not-yet-testable tion” actually happened on a campsite.
protoscience and forever untestable pseudoscience. Local grabbing prop I quickly came to appreciate the organized chaos that is
press reports of the lecture were even picked up by string- school life. I might arrive to find no audio-visual equip-
theory arch-critic Peter Woit in his blog Not Even Wrong. ment, microphone or amplification for a huge school hall
After convincing him that I present the hugely interesting filled with hundreds of kids, or little to no supervision of
debate about the limits of physics even-handedly, he students talking at pretty much the same volume as me. I
wished me well with my mission of recruiting more teen- was once left alone in a completely empty hall mere min-
agers into physics, despite my use of string theory “hype”. utes after I finished, leaving me wondering who to say
Given that I had already asked three experts go over the goodbye to. (I settled on the receptionist. No, not liter-
script with a fine-toothed comb, this gave me the confi- ally.) On the other hand, I often had first-class technical
dence I needed to spout forth on higher matters than the support in venues with perfect acoustics where the kids
simple guitar acoustics that I had researched as a PhD stu- behaved impeccably and I was treated like a VIP. The
dent at Cardiff University. questions ranged from the sublime (from a gifted 12 year
The tour itself was a revelation. What I enjoyed most old: “Why does the wavefunction collapse?”) to the ridicu-
were the little guest houses in local areas of interest or out- lous (“Could grumpy people use their negative energy to
standing beauty. Instead of bland hotel anonymity, you create a wormhole?”), while the post-lecture comments
stay in someone’s house, they cook you breakfast, and you were almost universally positive – almost. One angsty
truly feel immersed in your location rather than merely 14 year old groused “This lecture was insanely bad. All I
passing through – all for less than £40 a night. A nice case learned was that you can be a fantastic guitarist but still be
in point was The Broads near Norwich, where the (utterly really uncool.”
essential) sat-nav surprised me with the instruction “pre- In the battle for hearts and minds that physics must
pare to board ferry in half a mile”. After a brief, strange engage in, a tour like this embeds you in the front lines.
trip on a platform winched across the water by a chain, I There is almost nothing so worthy and effective that a
ended the day even more bizarrely in a hot tub in some- physicist can do than to put together an interesting, “re-
one’s back garden in the middle of Norfolk. ward laden” show and to take it into real schools. Teenage
In Scotland, I camped out in the Cairngorms, where nature, red in tooth and claw, then applies powerful se-
Peter Higgs had his hopefully-Nobel-prize-worthy re- lection pressures on your content and performance,
velation in 1964. However, the only revelation I had was immensely improving your fitness to the school environ-
being scared witless by an inquisitive deer sniffing around ment in very few generations. And when physics courses
my tent at 2 a.m. The camping did go spectacularly wrong and departments are threatened with extinction, it is
on one occasion: having stayed on Dorset’s beautiful physicists who must adapt.
Jurassic Coast one night, I slipped on a wet shower floor
and bashed my eyebrow hard on the tiles, resulting in a Mark Lewney is a science presenter who currently works at the UK
trip to Poole General Hospital’s A&E department holding Intellectual Property Office in South Wales, e-mail mark.lewney@
a bag of frozen peas. After I explained that 300 kids were His website is

52 Physics World June 2009