A reminiscence from Geoff Jones, former faculty member
My real pleasure in my first year as an assistant lecturer at Sussex was to help Ken Smith and Les Allen in setting up what was (and probably still is) the Cinderella of Physics courses – the first year teaching laboratory. There was a positive and a negative side to the job. On the positive side, we were starting in brand new laboratories with a clean slate. The labs themselves, a pair of rectangular rooms with windows along one long wall had been designed in consultation with Ken Smith and were laid out with brand new teak benches, blackboards at each end for tutorial discussion and a preparation room/workshop between them. The services were ‘state of the art’ for the time, although it was not many years before the provision of 13amp mains sockets was found to be completely inadequate. One peculiarity was that although a DC supply had been specified for each experimental position, we soon found out that this consisted of rectified but unsmoothed AC - not very useful. In a new laboratory there were no cupboards full of dusty obsolescent equipment and test gear.
But, of course that meant that there was no bank of apparatus that we could pillage for bits and pieces – just lots of empty cupboards. Everything started from scratch, many years before internet ordering and next day delivery became possible. Apparatus and test gear was ordered en masse from Griffin & George (now Griffin Educational)– their local rep called weekly and it must have seemed like Xmas to him. I must say that I do not remember any problems with funding our purchases.
So much for the physical environment; what were we going to do in it?The one thing we wanted to get away from was the standard ‘cafeteria’ of experiments which might bear little or no relationship to the course being studied and cover material sometimes not even in the course. We wanted to institute a rolling programme of experiments where all students did the same thing on a particular afternoon, relevant to the stage they had reached in their lecture course. This would have the advantage of cutting the number of experiments which needed to be developed but required a duplication of apparatus sets which might be used only three or four times in a year (students being split into three or four lab classes). This turned out to be impractical and a compromise was reached where we had a group of four or five experiments which would be rotated through the first half of the term then being replaced by a different set for the second half.
But what experiments? Laboratory manuals from other universities and from the few texts on experimental work were ransacked and a selection made. The first year course was entitled ‘Structure and Properties of Matter’ so our aim was to get away from trying to teach experimental techniques and build some relatively simple experiments which illustrated these ‘properties of matter’.
Some of the experiments we devised, like the investigation of propagation of ultrasonic waves in air (suggested by Ken Smith) became classics. Versions still appear in today’s textbooks. Others like the mapping of electric fields using conducting paper can now be done better using computer simulations. Measurement of the charge/mass ratio of the electron was done by two different methods. Random proceses were investigated in a number of ways and simple atomic spectroscopy experiments were set up .
But the problem was getting the equipment up and running. We had one term to do the job so that the first cohort of students could start labs in their second term. The first job was to set up a prototype. Then a colleague (preferably one with little hands-on experimental experience) had to be cajoled into running through the experiment to spot snags (fortunately the words ‘Health and Safety at Work’ had not yet been invented). Scripts had to be written, vetted for relevance to the course and readability and finally produced (no minor job in the age before the easily available photocopier). In the pre-PC era students were expected to draw graphs by hand and do calculations using sliderules. There were two electromechanical calculators, but they were primitive and not a lot of use.
We had great help from technical support staff both in the laboratory and in the engineering and electronics workshops, John Smith, the mainstay of teaching lab technical support for some years, arrived a little later. It showed the freebooting nature of the time that our best aide in the laboratory effectively walked in off the street. John Webb, a school headteacher who had retired to Sussex, called in and very hesitantly asked if he could put his long-term interest in Physics to any use. We jumped at the opportunity, partly, we joked, because his white hair and courtly manner added some much needed gravitas, but mainly because he soon showed a great facility in not only devising experiments but also explaining them to students. John acted as an invaluable unpaid demonstrator for years after, finally having his work recognised with an honorary degree.
Looking back, I can see how we could have done things much better, and the IT and reprographic facilities now available would have made a qualitative difference. But starting from a blank sheet of paper, I think we were working along the right lines. Such opportunities are likely to be very thin on the ground in the future.