21 February 2016

Seizing the gold: gravity waves in class

I have been explaining the recent discovery of gravitational waves in a podcast.

A nine-year-old child said after listening that they "understood it perfectly", while the director of a major think tank described it thus: "A sort of... 'gravitational waves for dummies' (without dumbing down), combinded with one man 'In Our Time'."

Having said that, the nine-year-old belongs to me and is probably a bit biased. The other quote though is from Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas where I recorded the interview (and where I'm also organiser of its Education Forum). As listeners of the Moral Maze will know, it's a brave soul that argues with her judgement!

Have a listen via the link at the end of this post, and decide for yourself.

Even better, why not play it to a group of young people?

If that's in a science lesson setting, I guarantee that the questions you'll be asked afterwards can be connected to what you're teaching fairly easily and will make for some excellent learning. As I hope I demonstrate in the podcast, the essentials of the story of gravity waves aren't actually that complex. With stuff like this it really doesn't matter if you can't address the more mind-bending elements, either; just hunch up, squint one eye and in a squeaky voice say, "we really just don't know..." It worked for Patrick Moore, after all.

As Sir Patrick knew well, the point of the exercise is not to show off our knowledge of complex physics, but to rock the students' spacetime with one truly massive and immense idea. To wit, your average 3-pound ball of warm greymatter is capable of standing outside itself enough to gain an understanding of the structure of the very universe itself - a structure that turns out not to be static, but dynamic, undulating and rippling in every bit an amazing way as the Rhine or the mysterious creatures within its depths.

More than that. That physics has aspects to it which are deeply poetic: two vast, black, all-consuming absences in space falling against each other in a death-embrace so violent that it jolts a quake in the very fabric of the universe; travelling down through the aeons it passes, unregistered, between you and me, bending and shaking the space between us; and for those with ears to hear, the reverberation makes an audible rising and falling scream.

It's Milton, it's Eliot, it's Wagner. Thanks to physics, there is now another dimension to approaching their references to the sea of time and space. This is not to be fanciful - Keith Warner's recent staging of The Ring Cycle at Covent Garden made much of these allusions, even covering the stage in the equations of General Relativity which, interestingly, rippled and wobbled as the effects of the seizure of the Rhinegold took hold. Art reflecting nature reflecting art.

Opportunities like this to undermine the perceptions of physics as abstract and sterile, and replace them with powerfully dramatic and vivid images, are indeed pure gold. We should seize them, with daring.

I hope the podcast might be a good place to start...

Podcast of ideas: gravitational waves