This was quite an event! A week of intense lab work, coupled with jokes, team work, presentations, food, excursion and a tranquil sense of satisfaction that comes with learning new physics and teaching it to others! The Fourth Regional Lab Immersion Program concluded on the 22nd of December with a heavy heart, burdened by the impending feeling of partition, and that it had all ended so soon.
The first day started by some niceties, followed by a hands-on activity led by Dr. Samya Zain from the Susquehenna University. She asked students to launch a projectile and a falling object so that they simultaneously hit each other at the ground while students were allowed only a single attempt. Imagine university teachers vying for success in a task as simple as ensuring a collision. I am sure students of these very teachers would have loved this sight. I then led students through a practical example illustrating data taking from a string of oscillators hung from a suspended wire and quivering inside the earth’s field. The role of uncertainties was highlighted, a graph was plotted and we were able to estimate the earth’s field.
This was a lab immersion program. Frankly, I myself didn’t know what immersion meant until I organized the first such program back in 2012. The idea was reinforced here. Immersion is when ‘physics has taken over’. In the sessions, we saw our participants being knocked down into practical work, forgetting their worries and joys and deriving pleasure or anxiety from nothing but experimental physics. This act of drowning, qualifies these seven days of concentrated activity indeed as a physics immersion program. Students, while working in pairs, could now measure band gaps of semiconductor material, observe the DC Josephson effect, measure lifetimes of muons, observe the conservation of energy in collisions, detect micro-degrees of rotations of polarization inside a magnetic field, find the wavelength of electron waves or estimate the latent heat of vaporization of liquid nitrogen. All of this happened between 17 and 18 of December.
Modern physics laboratory practice is markedly different from twenty years ago. New tools and skills have risen. We have arduinos, raspberry pi’s (fancy names of extremely powerful low-cost devices), data acquisition, 3D printers, cameras and smartphones. Capabilities unleashed by these tiny monsters can also frighten the novice, especially so for the poor teachers in the developing world who are starved of appreciation, mired in bureaucratic procedures, and demotivated by financial apprehensions. The utter lack of instructional laboratories in our institutions also takes away any opportunity or exposure. That’s why we decided to provide students with a compressed practical session on data acquisition. Muhammad Adnan from National Instruments led this session. The simple task was to use the computer as an oscilloscope and a function generator.
Umar Hasan’s presentation on video tracking was an instant celebrity. It turned out that the use of cameras and smart phones attracted everyone’s attention. From compressed springs to pendulums, locomotion of insects to colliding carrom pucks, video capturing followed by powerful processing and analysis tools, such as Physlab’s Phystrack, provides unprecedented joy in illuminating hidden facets of kinematics. There is a strange sense of superiority one feels in observing the trajectory of the erratic motion of microspheres suspended in a fluid or a marble rolling down the surface of a bowl. For me, video tracking has changed my perception and perhaps given me a new sense of vision:
محروم تماشا کو پھر دیدہ بینا دے
دیکھا ہے جو کچھ میں نے ، اوروں کو بھی دکھلا دے
For the same reason, several students used video tools in the projects that I will describe later.
The practical work was interspersed by several presentations from the visiting participants and students who worked under my supervision in various laboratory projects.
The presentations kicked off by Dr. Hanan Sa’adeh’s motivating presentation connecting the pursuit of physics with the search for aesthetic quality, that eventually renders the experimental physicist into an artist. Our students from LUMS shared their work on quantum erasure, tracking cosmic ray muons, chaos and nonlinear dynamics of pendulums and circuits, superconducting quantum interference devices. Dr. Wilson Ombati briefed the students about metrology and how to measure weights, signalling how the SI paradigm of units is about to undergo a fundamental overhaul. Sara Aburugia convinced all of us that remote virtual experiments have an important role to play in physics teaching while Islam Bazlamit took us through his attempts to revive Ibn-al-Haitham’s camera obscura at the University of Jordan.
Umair Asim‘s invited talk on astronomy in the light polluted Lahore took us into a voyage through the heavens. He showed glimpses of his amazing observations on variable stars, galactic dust and nebulas, solar flares and prominences and apprised the students of the inevitable importance of long, patient and painstaking observations made on a meticulously constructed, vibration-free and ultra-precise high resolution astronomical imaging system. These conflicting requirements are a universal feature of all serious projects in experimental physics.
Between the 20th and 22nd of December, students were asked to design and create something new. In my experience, in our part of the world, physics has traditionally been condemned to a mere exercise in analysis or more recently, in problem solving. But what about creation and invention? In the final stages of the Workshop, students mustered their entrepreneurial spirit and grouped into small teams designing altogether new experiments. They tried to follow dripping water from a faucet, the dynamics of discharge from a cylinder, the phase space trajectory of motion of spheres on curved surfaces, verifying Boyle’s law, measuring the speed of light and analyzing bouncing balls. Video tracking remained a popular feature. Finally it all culminating into another nicety. Dr. Umar Saif from the Punjab Information Technology Board and Syed Babar Ali, founder of the University inspired students with their graceful presence. Finally, here are what some of our students felt about the program.
It is impossible to relive the moments but here are some photographs to lighten up the nostalgia.
Muhammad Sabieh Anwar
5 January 2017