How physics can take you 'out of this world'

The Northern Echo: Barnard Castle physics teacher Steve Wrathmall, pictured with a powerful telescope, is interested in the big picture. Barnard Castle physics teacher Steve Wrathmall, pictured with a powerful telescope, is interested in the big picture.

Barnard Castle School science teacher Steve Wrathmall gives an insight into why he fell in love with physics and why he believes it is such a fascinating subject.

On the 11th November this year something remarkable may happen. I say “may” happen as it will involve a daring mission fraught with celestial peril. On that day we hope that the ESA (European Space Agency) Rosetta mission will complete its objective to land a small probe on a comet. This will be an amazing feat of engineering carefully planned and orchestrated over the last 15 years. It is also an amazing feat because the information returned to Earth by Rosetta will offer us a unique perspective on how the Solar System formed, and perhaps where the ingredients for life on this planet came from.

Comets are very important objects for physicists as we can use them to try and understand the Solar System’s past. You can think of them as ‘fossils’ from the early days of the Solar System and, just like fossils on Earth, they can provide us with information of what the Solar System looked like billions of years ago. They may also provide proof that the water on our Earth was delivered to us by comets smashing into it billions of years ago. They may even carry the organic molecules required for the first primitive life organisms on Earth. They are truly fascinating objects full of scientific adventure and secrets.

This adventure is something I was fortunate to share with a number of primary schools visiting Barnard Castle School in January. We talked about the origin of the Solar System’s and of life on Earth, we built a model comet using dry ice and Worcestershire Sauce as ‘organic matter’ and we dared to imagine what secrets the Rosetta mission will reveal to us. It reminded me about why I was interested in physics and why I wanted to become a physics teacher.

Teaching physics is about sharing how the universe works. In some ways a physics lesson is like an adventure. Just this week I explored the outer Solar System and its occupants with my Year 7 class.

With my Year 8 class we discovered the Universal Laws of Energy, rules that not only apply to the classroom but to anywhere in the universe. My Year 9 class has discovered that the Sun is an intense on-going sequence of nuclear explosions and why we cannot hear them on Earth. With Year 10 we discovered how the transistor has completely changed our modern lives. In my Year 11 class we admired that diamonds possess physical properties that are almost as dazzling as their beauty. My Lower Sixth explored the very building blocks of matter and even how things can be in two places at once! Finally, my Upper Sixth class determined the lowest possible temperature in the universe. Quite an adventure in the space of a week!

Studying physics is also an adventure, exploring this is at its best when done through practical work. This is a philosophy in which I strongly believe and I am very lucky to be in a school physics department that feels the same. At Barnard Castle School we look to incorporate practical work whenever possible. Through planning and investment, within the school, we have superb facilities to achieve this goal. Practical work helps bring the subject to life and makes it feel more relevant to the student. This philosophy is one of our major strengths.

Studying physics should be enjoyable to all; it is not a subject just for boys. Another major strength in our department is the popularity of physics amongst girls in all year groups. We strive to make it accessible to all and this is aided by our practical approach towards teaching physics.

I was fortunate enough, in my earlier career as a physicist, to have been on many physics adventures. I have travelled to many universities around the world, and visited particle accelerators and space agencies, worked with satellites and super computers, and met some of the most extraordinary minds alive today. I was able to do this because I had physics teachers who showed me that the universe is an exciting and intriguing place!

So let us hope that the Rosetta mission fares well in November and that its findings provide the answers to some big questions and more than likely open up some even bigger questions. It is a very exciting time to be a physicist but until then I will be sharing many other adventures in the classroom!

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