Physics Essays for Airline Travelers.
Jim McGuire, Tulane University, New Orleans
Write a dozen creative essays on specified topics in physics of about 300 words each, suitable for publication in airline magazines. Most of your course grade will be based on the originality and content of your essays. Imaginative style shall be rewarded. If you think your essay deserves a better grade, substantial credit will be given when your essay is actually accepted for publication.
While it excites the imagination to think of the disasters that could literally occur if such assignments were given in a course for engineers, the mere image of such entertaining scenarios provides get-even grist for the inventive minds of frustrated liberal arts majors who are forced to take a science course. And while many of these poor, miserable souls have been deprived of a consuming thirst for much of anything technical, they do have a few seeds of self respect when it comes to writing. Who among these aspiring leaders of humanity would admit to being unable to meet the lowly standards of airline magazines? Snickering at the very thought is indeed common during the first days of class. The more obscure the topic, the greater the challenge. So a Faustian accommodation can be reached with these young miscreants, who are bound and determined to become our masters by following pathways to money and power, theater and writing, or business and merchandizing. Not that we scientific purists need any of that!
So what dire things happen when such a devilish deed is done? First the number of hours worked per week by students in the course goes up to 3 - 6 from 0 - 3 hours. An hour or two is a limit clearly apparent when the "joy of solving physics problems" is imposed on normal people not used to this particular form of torture. Be warned that there are a few thieves in the thicket, however. While assigning technical topics (write an original essay on vectors) tends to yield clear and imaginative results, adding specific detail (write an original essay on vectors for rowing at 45o across the Amazon river, 100 km upstream from its mouth) somehow hinders creative flow. Regularly changing the assignments' details (easy), and avoiding topics easily copied from the internet (not quite so easy) are both preventively prudent.
Grading these marvels of mass manipulation isn't exactly an exercise in mathematical precision. But as with other forms of creative art, one usually recognizes excellence when one sees it. Even graders, who have come to our shores from other countries and other cultures, can do this reliably. It sure beats grading typical physics labs. Then from the students clamors a common chorus of "My grade wasn't fair.", with a particularly piercing vocal style emanating from the pre-law students. Unlike our own progeny of young scientists, engineers and pre-meds, this more vulgar choir can be redirected with a rousing stanza of "OK, sell it to the masses -- publish it.". And some will try. The sobering truth is, however, that compared to physics, airline companies prefer 300 word essays on sunny destinations that sell airline tickets: a hint of humility that might moderate some intemperate arrogance of ambition. In the end one may anticipate a crescendo in expanding numbers of voices, articulating songs of science in a variety and style that few scientists shall ever achieve, but to which a multitude of non-scientists may contentedly listen.