Physics for cheaters

Inspired by Brian’s post on plagiarized essays, Natalie Solent describes faking physics experiments, using reports from the previous year’s students.

My practical partner and I would work quite hard until the bloody thing started to go wrong. Even then we’d pummel the apparatus about for a while, hoping to convince it to yield the result in the book. But usually in the end we’d give up and go back to college to get to work producing a convincing fake.

A forgery is often true art. Sometimes I almost thought I learned more about physics in the process of constructing a plausible account of an experiment I had not completed than I would have learned in doing it. You had to ensure that the answer was off, but not too much off. You had to be ready to answer questions.

There was one particular experiment designed to teach us about statistics where you had to let a small ball drop out of a funnel and mark where it hit or something like that about a thousand times over. Then all the results for everyone were collected together and would, it was hoped, combine to display a nice bell curve. A rumour I heard said that one year the bell curve had a little subsidiary peak to one side of it. The authorities were very shocked. They thought the subsidiary peak represented all those who’d copied results from earlier years.

Wrong-o. The big peak showed that. The little peak belonged to the honest students.

One day, they carelessly turned in the exact results of the previous year’s students.

The demonstrator talked amiably about the experiment for a while then got out a big lined record book and wrote down our names and result at the foot a column of earlier results.

I forget which of us spotted our peril first, or by what desperate telepathy she communicated it to the other — but within half a second we were wordlessly conveying to each other that we were finished. Doomed. Dead meat. The only question was when the axe would fall.

Our result was only two lines below the one we’d copied it from. The two were identical to three decimal places, a physical impossiblity or damn nearly so.

Our demonstrator hadn’t spotted it yet but eventually somebody would. There would be only one possible explanation.

So they waited for the demonstrator to go to lunch, stole the book and changed the previous results, which had been written in pencil. They got away with it.

Anyway, I started really doing the experiments right through to the end. Most of the time I still couldn’t make them work but the long post-mortems no longer seemed so bad.

One experiment I remember well (perhaps because it actually worked eventually) was intended to demonstrate the Hanle Effect. When I got past the initial stages of this one I found some crucial components were missing. I had to go to a lot of trouble to get what I needed and re-fit them in the bowels of apparatus. The interior was very dusty. It was clear to me that no one had done the latter part of the experiment for years — yet people were on the books as having done it.

David Gillies caught students copying physics reports. Nothing much happened to the cheaters.

About Joanne


  1. It isn’t just physics. I was in a chemistry class in high school with two sections, first period and fifth period, and I was in the fifth period class. The students in the first period class were fully expected to tell the fifth period students what was on that day’s test. I always walked away from conversations like that so that I wouldn’t overhear what was on the test. But the teacher insisted on curving each section separately (supposedly as a precaution against cheating!!!) and so I got a grade that was one full letter grade lower than I would have had were I in the first period class.

    I also knew a student who, despite being smart enough to earn his straight A’s, cheated in every class because he could. He announced publicly his intention to cheat his way through med school. I dearly hope he was caught at some time, because I shudder to think he might today be a doctor. I made a point of remembering his name so that I wouldn’t ever end up as his patient.

    And this was nearly 15 years ago. I can’t imagine how bad it’s probably gotten now.

  2. If teacher cannot (or will not) verify that a students work is really theirs, is it an effective assignment?

  3. Ah. You too as well as Samizdata. One never knows which of one’s posts is going to prove popular. Just so everyone knows, it was more than twenty years ago and I am a now a reformed character. OK? Good.

    Although I heard that scrutiny was made more rigorous in that particular course after I left, in my gloomier moments I think that the most likely thing to have changed since then is that, in general, today’s students wouldn’t be nearly as terrified as we were when discovery seemed imminent.

  4. Hi again, Natalie!

    For students frustrated with Physics experiments that don’t work, here’s one approach.

  5. Bob Hawkins says:

    I both took and later taught physics labs at Ohio State. Back then, at least, students wrote their reports in notebooks that never left the lab. Unless you had a photographic memory, this pretty much eliminated the problem of copying old reports.

    This meant that the labs had to be simple enough to do and write up in a 2-hour session. It’s not obvious to me that that’s bad. And at least, when you left the lab, you were done.

  6. Time to ‘fess up, I suppose…

    During my time in physics classes, I never once copied results. (I don’t think it ever even occured to me to copy previous groups’ results – that’s cheating and rather reprehensible, in my opinion.) But when the experiments went wrong – and god knows, they always did – we just figured out for ourselves about what the results should have been and then figured everything else out based on those numbers. We called it “dry labbing” – e.g.:

    “How did Experiment 5 turn out for you?”
    “Terrible, nothing worked – we had to dry lab it.”

  7. I flunked college chemistry, but the one time I dry labbed an experiment I got an excellent grade on it, and learned more than I had the rest of the semester. The student who let me work off his process sheet was not happy that I got two more points than he did. I went thru the whole thing forwards, derived the precise results, added 9.732% error and reconstructed it. If I’d had the discipline to do this all semester I might have passed.

  8. michaelh says:

    As far as I am aware, none of my physics peers did that. I certainly did not. Of course I would have been paralyzed with the fear of getting caught. It was a small liberal arts college and there were only 5 Physics majors in my class. We did the experiments and wrote them up as they happened, problems, unexpected results and all. And, being such a small department, we had a high level of attention from the department staff which consisted of only 3 professors. So the typical course of action, if we could not get the experiment to work, was to go get the appropriate professor and seek some clarification. If we were missing something we ought to have known, then they would leave us to work it out ourselves and report accordingly. If there there was some problem beyond our control or experience, the professor would help solve it or give us a strategy for getting around it. Ah the benefits of a great teacher to student ratio!