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.