The Sciences

Pause for a Glass of Beer

Cosmic VarianceBy cjohnsonFeb 14, 2006 2:29 AM


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Well, it's that time of semester again. I have to think of things to put on the midterm exams. I started this process last night (Sunday) for my Physics 151 class. It was a sort of finishing-off of a weekend (filled with gardening and house cleaning), before another busy work week began. So rather than do this at home (where I'd get distracted by a million and one other "pressing" things) I decided to spend a couple of hours down at my "local", the Cat and Fiddle,

which is a rather successful approximation of an English pub, with the bonus of being in an old-Los Angeles hacienda-style setting with a lovely large courtyard with fountain, while still having your standard pub-style interior complete with dartboards, and fish and chips, bangers and mash, and steak-and-kidney pie on the menu. Excellent! (My only complaint is that the wait staff are not stroppy enough.... way too uniformly cheerful to be authentic.... and not wearing nearly enough black. Sigh.) Sitting in a quiet corner with a little notebook thinking up exam questions with a (surprisingly well-poured) pint of guinness is actually a nice way of spending a couple of hours on a Sunday evening. There was the added .... bonus .... that there was some live Jazz music (of dubious quality) in the courtyard, which was a pleasant enough backdrop. The process of preparing exams for the freshman level is very different from the sort of exam preparation I spoke about earlier. Here, the students are still learning a lot of the language of expressing themselves coherently in properly formed mathematical statements, and still developing intuition for how the physical world works.... crucially they are learning (I hope) to abandon a lot of the dreadfully confusing phrases that pervade our language, which they hold onto, which then pollutes their physics..... And most importantly they are still learning to be confident about making the physics -and the processes I have taught them- work for them consistently, so it is a delicate time, and they're easily confused at this stage. So one must prepare very straightforward questions, with extra clear instructions, and no clever sting in the tail. Sadly, I think we've been erring more on the side of caution in this area every year (it does not matter at which institution I've taught), and things get simpler and simpler to the point that it is difficult to go back. (But I understand that this is what is called "progress", and so onwards and upwards we go.....) Anyway, it was a nice time, and I wrote all my questions. The full moon was shining down on the courtyard as I scribbled and computed the outcomes of little mechanics scenarios (most of which were too complicated to use - the exam is only an hour long) with lots of people chatting around me about relationships and the like, and with the jazz quintet playing in the far corner. I'd have taken a picture of the scene for you, but I decided not to for the following reason: Normally I can whip out the camera and snap a scene before anyone is aware of what I'm doing, but the challenging (but picturesque) low-lighting conditions would have meant me fiddling a bit to get it right, and I'd have attracted some attention to myself. The last time I accidentally did that in one of my haunts one lunchtime (actually at the Alcove, a pleasant cafe not a million miles away), some celebrity (or celebrity wannabe) at the table next to me got up in a huff, picked up her kid and left, apparently thinking I was some member of the paparazzi taking a picture of them. I've still no idea who it was, but it was sort of annoying. The Cat is rather well known for being a place for spotting those types (the real celebrities and the ones who think they are) - if this interests you - and so I erred on the side of caution, as I just wanted to drink my pint in peace. It's just so hazardous hanging out in Hollywood sometimes. -cvj

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