Applied physics

In a satirical, humorous, not-actually-real article, Watley Review profiles a teacher who specializes in applied physics, John Gaston.

A typical Gaston exam question involves asking students to choose between catching a small metal box filled with 20 pounds of lead dropped from a height of 1 foot, or the same metal box stuffed with 20 pounds of feathers dropped from the roof of an 8-story building. Each year, about five students try to catch the feather-filled box and end up in the emergency room with concussions.

“I still think it was a trick,” glowered Marvin Stoddmeyer, a student who chose the feathers and failed the final exam, breaking his collarbone in the process. “Gaston said something about momentum and kinetic versus potential energy or something during the year – yadda yadda yadda. But at no point did he specifically warn us not to try to catch a 20 pound object dropped from an 8-story building. That’s deception, man.”

Students are guaranteed an A, without having to attend classes or take exams, if they create a perpetual motion device by the last day of the school year.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. Mad Scientist says:

    Reminds me of part of my misspent youth, Freshman year in college. We were playing D&D, and the DM told one person that his character was killed when 10 tons of feathers in a bag landed on him. One of the not-too-bright comrades thought this was incredibly funny, and mentioned that the DM should have made it lead “because it weighed more”.

    There are numerous stories of items like this. A famous Chemist failed his physics exam when he was asked to determine the height of a building using a barometer. He answered that you drop the barometer off the roof and see how long it takes to fall. Then you apply the proper formula to determine the distance.

  2. Marvin Stoddmeyer, what a moron. Didn’t we all learn that stuff in 6th grade?

    TC

  3. Mad Scientist, that’s funny. We all know the correct way to do it is to sell the barometer to someone who knows the correct height of the building, and have him tell you.

  4. Mad Scientist,
    I personally don’t think the chemist’s answer should have caused him to fail the test. It’s a perfectly valid way to tell the height of a building using a barometer, just not the preferred way. Isn’t this an example of the whole out-of-the-box thinking thing everyone keeps talking about?
    Also, I’d love to know how the DM came up with 10 tons of feathers in a bag, that’s just too funny.

  5. Great story. I teach chemistry at a large state university. The line

    “Gaston said something about momentum and kinetic versus potential energy or something during the year – yadda yadda yadda. But at no point did he specifically warn us not to try to catch a 20 pound object dropped from an 8-story building. That’s deception, man.”

    really rings a bell with me. I get that type of comment all the time. As for the method the chemist chose to measure the height of the building I think that it would be more accurate than measuring a barometric drop over a few hundred feet.

  6. Mad Scientist says:

    Boo:

    Actually that was one of the solutions: trade the barometer to the building maintenance guy in exchange for the height of the building. Another one was to tie a string to the barometer and lower it to the ground.

    Adrian:

    This happened in the early 20th century in Europe. I believe the chemist was Niels Bohr. Academics were not given to “creative” problem solving; they wanted you to do the thing their way.

  7. Mad Scientist,
    Either way, it’s a great story, and it’s great to know who it was.

  8. Doug Sundseth says:

    Reminds me of a (real) extra-credit question on given me on a 7th or 8th grade math test:

    “Which is heavier, a pound of feathers or a pound of gold?”

    I answered that as gold is measured in Troy pounds and feathers are measured in Avoirdupois pounds, the feathers are heavier. A better answer would have been, “Indeterminate; units not fully specified.”

    The only answer accepted by the teacher was “Neither”.

    But most of my teachers were better than that.