Original URL: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/06/15/letters_1406/

Exams, contracts, and nuclear research: stupid, stupid, stupid

GCSE physics scandal shakes mailbag

By Lucy Sherriff

Posted in Bootnotes, 15th June 2007 13:02 GMT

Letters A secondary school physics teacher sent an open letter to the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) and the AQA exam board. He accused the board of putting forward a paper which contained questions that were vague, stupid, insultingly easy, political, and non-scientific. Your thoughts:

In two years time, this generation will be applying to university. Initially, they will be turned down, in favour of foreign and privately educated students who have actually been educated rather than baby-sitted for the previous twelve years. Then the politicians will step in, ranting about "access" and "elitism", and force universities to accept these students and dumb down their courses accordingly. Three years after *that*, a BSc from a British university will be worth less than a "paid-for" degree from some creationist establishment in the US.

Funny thing is, if I were to withhold my children from school and subject them to this kind of rubbish at home, I'd be prosecuted. 'Tis a shame that the various arms of government in this country aren't obliged to obey the same laws as the rest of us. (But I ranted about *that* in a reply earlier today to another Reg article. Perhaps I need to go home and calm down.)


You know, I had wondered what the Post-Modernist "scholars" had been up to lately. They've been flying largely under the media radar since Alan Sokal's Hoax famously lampooned their view that all science is socially constructed, and their inability to distinguish between intellectual standards and political barricades.

They landed at the AQA board, then. I'm sure they're very happy there. Thanks for the "Where Are They Now" moment.


It might be entertaining to post a question El-Reg. This was in common circulation in the late 70's / early 80's. Ask people to post the answer, their age and whether or not they used a calculator. (I also have a pretty diagram...)

Question: A mineshaft is 22m deep. The cage, which holds ten persons, is hoisted over a headstock on a cable that is wound onto a motorized drum with a diameter of 0.7m. The drum rotates at a speed of 10 rpm. Assume that the cage travels up and down at the same speed, whether laden or light and that initial acceleration and deceleration of the cage have no effect on the overall speed of the cage. Also assume that it takes 10 seconds to load/unload the cage. If the cage is initially at the top of the shaft, how long would it take to evacuate 21 persons from the mine ?


Easy: you get Scotty to beam them out. Tch...

I remember many years ago someone had etched "Sociology degree - please take one" next to the toilet roll at the Physics department in Bristol University. Perhaps they should update this to include Physics GCSE?

I note that sex education was missing from the list of gender awareness, anti-racism etc from the Physics questions. So how about this?

"After practicing safe sex on top of a skyscraper, a couple began to argue about how tall the building was. Given that they had a spare condom, measuring tape and a pressure meter; devise an experiment to measure the height of the building."


I was chatting to the head of the maths from my old school in the pub last year. It was end of term and she was coming up with a few quizzes for the 5th year students (or whatever year they call them these days, the 15/16yos about to take what I would have called an 'O' level).

I threw a couple of ideas her way, only to have them knocked back as they don't teach the kids that anymore. That included bases other than 10 and matrices, both of which I had in my good old fashioned 'O' level lessons in the late 80s.

And to think, all this time I thought the premium rate quizzes we see at the end of almost every TV show were pitifully easy, when all along I've just been over educated.


"The evidence we have is that the mark distributions for these new papers are similar to those for the previous papers so candidates appear to find them equally as accessible e.g. grade boundaries are at similar percentages."

They'd probably get the same results if they simply gave marks for height or weight or writing speed or any number of attributes completely unrelated to physics. I assume they know this (unless their statistics education has been to their own syllabus) and thus they are intentionally setting out to deceive.

We have come to expect deception and spin from politicians, but to find it infecting everyday parts of life is deeply depressing.


You may remember last week we brought you news that the top bods at Oxford university's libraries were taking steps to deal with the soon-to-be-enforced WEEE directive. That is to say, they suggested getting rid of old electronic kit now, before anyone forces you to recycle it:

Oxford libraries should know better, apart from the non-recycling they are trying to get people to chuck stuff out because it's old. This, in organisations as old as Oxford Libraries, could result in some valuable computing history being consigned to landfill. It is already quite worrying how much of our 8bit and pre 8-bit past has just been chucked out, or is knackered because it's in the (damp) shed/garage. You shouldn't just chuck stuff out if it has historic value (give it to a computer museum) and you should try to re-use or recycle. There are charities who will take old machines and send them to the needy.


The dangers of large, bloated, overdue, and over budget government IT contracts cannot be overstated. Really.

I have a firm rule: only wave around guns if you're prepared to pull the trigger. Grainger is threatening to throw suppliers out, For a project that is over schedule, over budget, and where one major company (Accenture) has already walked away, it will be impossible to re-let the contracts. And a supplier facing penalties for late delivery and/or pulling out might be quite happy to be thrown out anyway.

Some years ago I was called to task over the SLAs we were offering for a project we didn't see any strong reason to do, but where we held the IPR in the only plausible solution. If you don't offer better SLAs, I was told, we'll put it out to tender. My boss and I looked at each other, then I asked for a piece of paper. I wrote `no bid' on it, put it on the table and walked out. We never heard any more about tendering.


Kids are better at technology than ever. They can turn the TV on, and other stuff that uses that electrickery. Someone send 'em a physics GCSE...

"According to the study from NPD, children begin using consumer electronic devices at the average age of 6.7 years, falling from 8.1 years in 2005."

Sorry, are we talking TVs, videos, PC games and the internet here? For those households that have such things (and I'll add the condition that the internet connection has to be always-on, not dial-up), I'd be surprised if there are any school-age children who can't use them. Did we need another survey into the wealth gap in the UK?

My youngest is not yet three but already capable of waking up, trotting downstairs, putting a disc in the DVD and skipping through the bollocks at the front of the disc to get to his programme. I hear similar stories from just about every young family I know.

(That said, I do know one little girl who trotted back upstairs to fetch dad because she couldn't get past the legal threats, mind games and adverts on a Disney disc. Boy are they hard work. Maybe the survey was talking about those, in which case 6.7 years is pretty commendable.)


What a disappointing article! From the headline I was expecting it to say how they were wiring up BC109s and logic gates. No chance of that I suppose ...

Regards, Mike

Oops. We missed out a word:

Quote: Christopher Horner, "a well-known climate skeptic..."

A _climate_ skeptic eh? I wonder if, during a thunder storm, he shouts: "Rain? Nah! It's just a bloke with a hose!" or "Wind? Nonsense! Trees move because they're excited to see you".


The Royal Society unearthed some secret documents left over from the war. James Chadwick, discoverer of the neutron, sent the research to the RS for safekeeping. This, we thought you might find interesting:

With all due respect, the research mentioned in your article was not cutting edge at the time. At least in France.

Joliot-Curie, the physicist Nobel Prize for its work on nuclear energy, had been charged by then France's Président du Conseil (Prime Minister) Pierre Laval to lead the French Nuke Bomb program back in 1935.

As early as 1938 the joint program (along with Belgium) was going industrial at full steam, and our heavy water plant went into production. Did I mention it was located in Norway?

The program would have been completed by late '40, mid '41 if not for the war. And that explains a lot why French leadership was so reluctant to challenge Hitler early on...

A few other tidbits: the heavy water plant was deemed so essential by all parties, albeith only part of the industrial effort, that it prompted Nazi's invasion of Norway early '40, and the sending by France AND the UK of an expeditionnary corps there to counter. If not for the plant it wouldn't have made any sense on both parts.

Our stock of heavy water was safeguarded during the war by Morocco and Mohammed V. Till '41 if was therefore under the nominal control of the Vichy regime. Yet it's Prime Minister at the time, the aforementioned Pierre Laval did nothing to send it back to Hitler despite some rumours to the contrary.

Joliot-Curie then went to work in '41 in the US Nuke team led by Oppenheimer. As some details about the project leaked after the war about the Manhattan project his role was always belittled, not so much because he was French, but mainly because in that Macarthy era he was one of the leaders of the French Communist Party !!


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