Not So Much a Year of Wonders

I thought about dedicating this short post to explaining some interesting physics for it is only logical for me to do so given my interest in the field.

It is also true that there has been great progress in the field in the past few hundred years (naturally), therefore there is a lot to talk about or to impress with. To illustrate, Newton’s law of universal gravitation already seems dated or obvious by today’s standards, yet this has not always been the case. At the time of its discovery, it was truly revolutionary. The fact that there exists one and the same law, that describes both the motion of celestial bodies as well as my potential fall from a chair, was astounding. This law only cemented the role mathematics would have in our future endeavours of describing the world around us. Today we mostly see the weaknesses of this theory which nonetheless took a few hundred years to be fully explained by Albert Einstein. In particular, one of the outstanding problems was the so called ‘action at a distance’, where two distant objects can communicate gravitationally without being in physical contact with each other or under the influence of a force mediated through some medium. It took the genius of Einstein to realise that the medium through which gravity mediates is the four-dimensional spacetime itself.

Back to the present moment, it is the name of Sir Isaac Newton that a lot of us have been recently overexposed to due to a certain parallel between our two times – quarantine. (I hope the parallel concludes here for the end of the then epidemic, which had cost the lives of a quarter of London’s population, was superseded by the Great Fire of London during which a quarter of the remaining population lost a roof over their heads. In Newton’s period, England had been afflicted with bubonic plague which prompted Newton to seek refuge for 18 months at his home in the countryside. While in isolation, young Newton lived his ‘year of wonders’ (Annus Mirabilis) during which he laid the foundations for many of his future breakthroughs, among them the universal law of gravitation. Exactly this isolation miracle should now, at least according to countless internet articles, provide motivation to the young generation while stuck in quarantine.

Newton’s age was full of absolutism of all kind, not only of the form of government, but also in the way nature was being described with the use of absolute quantities – the dominant rule of Newton and his sense of seeing the physical world in absolute terms, epitomised by his rotating water bucket (thought experiment), lasted almost two centuries. Therefore, also thanks to the general experience with plague epidemics, Newton could himself be quite sure of the impending absolute closure of his university unlike this year’s students in the case of the novel coronavirus. Even just a week before the university closure ultimately happened, only a handful of students would have pondered such an idea. It was around this time when we had the first glimpse of what would lie ahead – e.g. MIT was among the first universities to announce the cancelation of all on-site teaching and to tell its students they had a week to pack their bags and vacate its premises. More and more universities were shortly following suite so it quickly became just a matter of time before we would receive such a devastating email from Imperial ourselves. Such an email arrived just a week before the end of the second term along with a symbolic cloud-burst, which then caused a minor flood in our apartment. Still a few days before this day, I had been set to ride out the pandemic in England in order to pass my exams. Nonetheless, having received this email, there was no longer anything baring me from starting to plan my premature exodus. I was a bit lucky in this regard since I was able to change the date of my flight departure free of charge and to return home a week early. Some flights had been cancelled while the remaining ones soon sold out, preceding this the prices of plane tickets skyrocketed to many hundreds of pounds. One last pleasant thing awaiting me after my repatriation was the mandatory, fourteen-day quarantine.

The following third trimester ran slightly differently than at any point in the history of our institution; it ran remotely, which could mean different things for different people. The only fact that stayed constant was that no one were to return to university in the remaining days of this academic year. Fortunately, I did not have any tutorials, lectures or field trips in this last trimester which would have to be cancelled, but there were still exams which form an integral part of each academic year. Thus, there were high expectations and also a lot of scepticism about conducting examinations remotely both on the side of students and academic staff.

The university had probably devised many models for the new format of exams, that would also ‘retain its academic integrity’, before ultimately settling for the following process; the student downloads the paper containing the questions at a certain hour, they work on it for a set period of time, finally they take pictures of their written answers using their phone or tablet and then upload them to a specific folder. While there was no one keeping track of us during the exam, we were allowed to use our notes and even the internet, which definitely helped, although even the best search engine would have not solved the physics problems by itself. All forms of communication between students were strictly prohibited during an exam, but without any oversight, the university appealed to students to maintain their usual level of academic integrity.

Arguably the biggest disadvantage of the chosen exam format was the lack of its ‘standardisity’, on which the English education model heavily relies – in the ideal case all students sit the same exam at the same time in the same place. Not only were some students disadvantaged materialistically – not having a pleasant work/study environment, slow internet connection, computer issues etc. – many also struggled psychologically, in different ways and to different extents. It is worth noting that the internationality of the student body only exacerbated the issue of requiring simultaneity for each exam – what is a casual morning hour for a European, is an evening hour in Southeast Asia or a nocturnal hour in the Americas.

Despite all these pitfalls, I do think the university handled the whole situation relatively well, for it too assured us that if we pass the exams, we will not be given an overall mark that would be worse than the congregate mark obtained in previous years of our studies (safety net policy). The university has also recently announced that it is planning to reopen in Autumn; lectures shall be held online, laboratories and tutorials will be running too but with social distancing rules applied. Yet if it were not for modern technology, no ‘study at a distance’ or exams would be possible during the crisis.

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