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Weird units and wonderful measures: the human side to physics

Dr Richard Brock, Postdoctoral Fellow in Science Education at King’s, has worked with the Institute of Physics Education to produce a booklet collating all of the weird and wonderful physics stories he came across during his eight years as a teacher.

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“I can still vividly recall some of the stories I was told by my physics teachers. I remember hearing about Tycho Brahe’s pet elk, his metallic false nose and Newton’s many eccentricities. When I became a teacher, I would share these stories with my classes and began to collect more stories, both from talking to teachers and from my reading.”

Dr Richard Brock, Postdoctoral Fellow in Science Education at King’s, has worked with the Institute of Physics Education to produce a booklet collating all of the weird and wonderful physics stories he came across during his eight years as a teacher. The first booklet in a series of seven, ‘Weird units and wonderful measures’ is an engaging resource for teachers and is publicly available on the Institute of Physics’ new Spark website.

We spoke to Dr Brock to find out more about the project and the stories.

Why is storytelling in the classroom important?

Physics can come across as a dry and abstract subject. Telling stories about physicists can introduce students to the human interest that underlies the end products of physics and give an insight into the ways scientific discoveries are made. Research suggests that humans are particularly receptive to information presented in the form of stories and hence storytelling is likely to be a successful pedagogic approach.

What’s your favourite story?

It's hard to choose! I am fond of Roger Babson, an American stock trader who made his fortune after the 1929 crash. He attributed his success to the application of Newton's third law to the stock market and bought the original manuscripts of Newton's Principia. Perhaps affected by his sister's death by drowning, Babson began a campaign against gravity, setting up an anti-gravity institute which was partly funded by Clarence Birdseye of frozen food fame. The Gravity Research Foundation held meetings in which attendees sat in specially designed chairs, with their feet raised above their heads, to counteract the effects of gravity.

What impact do you hope these booklets will have in schools?

I hope the booklets will introduce some of the lesser known stories about physics to a wider audience and capture the imagination of young people. Realising that physics is a human endeavour, rich in character and incident, may inspire more young people to study the subject.

Of the project, Charles Tracy, IOP Head of Education remarks;

“Richard has collected some amazing, amusing and enlightening stories and I am very pleased that the IOP is able to help him to share them. I’m sure that you will be quickly taken in by the stories themselves and their engaging retelling here.”

Get the booklet

A copy of the first booklet is available on the Institute of Physics’ Spark website for teachers. The booklets will also be released with the IOP newsletter for teachers, Classroom Physics, which comes out quarterly.

The next booklet, on forces and motion, will be released in September, and subsequent booklets will be released every three months over the next couple of years.

Follow Dr Brock on Twitter @RBrockPhysics for more amusing physics stories.

Realising that physics is a human endeavour, rich in character and incident, may inspire more young people to study the subject– Dr Richard Brock