Seminar 2 saw students exploring Physics with Brian Tanner, Emeritus Professor of Physics at Durham University. Brian introduced the students to the notion of collaborative reading, looking through Robert Grosseteste’s treatise ‘On the Rainbow’. They read about his various experiments, including looking at light refracting through a urine flask, which they replicated using a vase and a mobile phone torch.
Two students then volunteered to take part in an image-formation experiment. They carefully observed a coin’s supposed change of position as water was poured into a vessel, demonstrating refraction at water-air interface. Students used these experiments to evaluate the extent to which Grosseteste was accurate in his theories about the laws of refraction, and were surprised to know how close he was to modern scientific understanding, along with key thinkers like Roger Bacon.
The seminar ended on a discussion about spectacles – when were they invented? Who invented them? Was it Roger Bacon’s experiment on slicing a sphere which created a lens? Or the Arab invention of a ‘reading stone’? Despite numerous paintings of scholars wearing spectacles, the evidence is still inconclusive, as artists may have superimposed them onto the figures to make them look scholarly.
Students launched into the seminar series by exploring the cosmos with Richard Bower, and comparing medieval and modern views on the universe. They considered questions of how it was created – was it designed by a ‘craftsman’ or did it always exist – and compared the theories of thinkers like Plato and Aristotle, and how Robert Grosseteste’s theory of celestial bodies fit in. Students were surprised to learn that Grosseteste actually theorised about the building of a telescope, which wasn’t put into practice for several centuries!
Taking a cross-curricular stance, students explored cosmology through archaeology – they learned about rocks that have been found in Northumbria, thought to be from around 4000BC, which depict cup and ring marks that are thought to represent star charts.
Students then explored cosmology in the modern day – how we understand the world around us using mathematical formulae, and are able to model the universe using super computers. They watched virtual simulations of the big bang, creations of galaxies, and formation of stars, and wondered if this is all that the universe is made of…
Some very insightful questions were asked at the end, as students calculated the probability of finding a planet able to sustain life. The answer was that such a planet could be as close as 100 light years away, leading to discussions around why ‘aliens’ haven’t contacted us before…
This year’s successful OxNet applicants joined a scholarly community by attending their first Study Day at Ushaw College in Durham, along with Dr Peter Claus and Professor Giles Gasper.
We welcomed students from 8 Sixth Forms and Colleges, 4 of whom are new to OxNet this year – Benfield School, Park View Academy, Prior Pursglove, Southmoor Academy, St Robert’s of Newminster, Stockton Sixth Form, Sunderland College and Byron Sixth Form.
Students threw away the boundaries of A-level study, and became undergraduates for the first time. They learned how to analyse gobbets of texts, debated the meaning of a ‘discipline’, and considered the criteria of what truly makes a science or a humanity. For example, is there really such a big difference between Physics and History? Students split into groups to present their findings, and were given one key piece of guidance – “you have not only the right, but the duty, to disagree”. Discussions were punctuated with tours of Ushaw College, including its chapel with a secret tunnel under the floor, and a library filled with over 30,000 books.
The day finished with a guide on university admissions from Richard Petty of Trinity College, Oxford, along with a student’s perspective on being a Northerner in Oxford from Tom Clennett, ex-student of Dyke House College in Hartlepool and current student of Chemistry at Brasenose College, Oxford.
Students came away with the notion that learning is like doing a jigsaw – although the pieces may seem unclear at times, they eventually connect to create a coherent and exciting whole.