The Attraction of Physics

The scientific mind – it is sometimes said – is not interested in the opinion of others.  Instead, it constantly seeks first-hand knowledge by experiencing and questioning things for itself. 

When Mr McDermott introduced his Year 13 Physics class to the Cavendish Experiment, their first reaction was to think that it was “really cool”. Their second reaction was to want to repeat the experiment for themselves – just to check. It was conducted in 1879 by a British Scientist named Henry Cavendish, who used weights and wooden rods to demonstrate that all objects are attracted to each other by the force of gravity.  From this seemingly simple start, he went on to work out the density and mass of the earth.  He described his experiment as “weighing the world.” 

There is an atmosphere of warmth and humour in the class.  The relationships are fantastic; they are confident, they trust their Teacher, and they are united by a strong ambition to forge fulfilling careers in Science, Technology and Engineering. Bev, Adam and Dan have decided on Mechanical and Chemical Engineering; Jack is applying to Oxford and considering Energy Engineering; Joe is setting his sights on Biotechnology; Tara, an aspiring Architect, is planning to study at Cambridge University; Esme is aiming for Biomedical school, and Katherine is an Astronaut of the future who first wants to complete a degree in Physics and Astronomy.  They are articulate and they want to make a difference.  As ‘graduates’ of Coombe Dean’s 2018 triple science cohort (76% of which achieved grades 7-9) they have a track record of high academic success.

Mr McDermott got the students started with their experiment by giving them a sheltered space so that variables such as air currents could be excluded and by bringing in some heavy weights. After that, they designed and constructed the apparatus themselves. In the process, they gained first-hand experience of the practical difficulties that beset Scientists; the material they were using to suspend the weights kept breaking and so they had to experiment with different types, settling eventually on steel wire. And then they had to devise a way of measuring and recording the results.  The weights would move over time – or so they hoped – but this would be a process occurring over several days and in minute measures of movement. 

At the location of the experiment, an old-fashioned ruler is hanging from a steel wire.  There are hexagonal weights taped to each end, and there are gnarly weights on each side propped up with boxes full of exercise books that rest on trollies.  There is a great improvisational quality to the scene, but this makes it all the more impressive.  Just like Henry Cavendish, our Engineers and Astronauts of the future have used simple components to do something very clever. While the everyday world has been going about its ordinary business – Coombe Dean’s Year 13 physics class has been learning how to “weigh” it.

It is reassuring to know that in our world of “fake news” and second-hand opinions, Coombe Dean is nurturing scientific minds – constantly seeking first-hand knowledge by experiencing and questioning things for themselves.  This mindset of enquiry, the quality of resourcefulness and these skills of practical experimentation are vital for success in the world of work that awaits our students.

Video of the Experiment – weights as they move under gravitational force:

If you would like to find out more about learning Physics at Coombe Dean, speak to Mr McDermott.


S Sinclair

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