Our senses are bombarded in modern life. When our ears are plugged with sound from the mobile phone to which our eyes are glues, our brain tends to be overloaded with stimuli and we barely register the signals from our other senses: smell, taste, touch. Our smart phones can deliver so much data to our brains that there is little time to savour experiences. Yet, some neuroscientists have suggested that the significant function of consciousness is to provide us with sensory pleasure and a reason to live. In our busy lives, we need to pay attention to the small things in life, such as the taste of your home-made granola at breakfast and the smell of freshly brewed coffee, or the feel of a shell or pebble that you keep on your desk [‘Pebbles – where are yours?’ on September 27, 2017]. So, tune into all of your senses and give your mind a break from the digital world. It should make you feel better.
Henry Lea Laboratory, The University of Sheffield in the 1960s
I have happy memories of teaching laboratory classes at the University of Sheffield in the mid 1980s and 1990s in the Henry Lea Laboratory. The laboratory was crammed full of equipment for experiments in mechanics of materials. We conducted the practical classes on a limited selection of test machines that stood around a set of benches in the centre of the laboratory on which were a series of bench-top experiments for undergraduates. The outer reaches of the laboratory were packed with test machines of various shapes and sizes that were the domain of the research students and staff. So, undergraduate students were privileged to conduct their laboratory classes surrounded by research activity – this was one of the advantages of attending a research-intensive university to study engineering. However, this is not the experience that modern students gain from laboratory classes. Sheffield, like Liverpool, and many other research-intensive universities has purpose-built teaching laboratories that provide modern spacious facilities for teaching and learning but also segregate undergraduates from the research business of the university. In the UK, the increase in student numbers, as we moved towards 50% participation in higher education, was probably a prime driver for the design and construction of these facilities. However, often the growth in student numbers exceeds the planned capacity of the teaching laboratories and the student experience is reduced by being in a group of five or six with only one or two of them being able to get hands-on experience at the same time. To overcome this problem, I have used practical exercises as homework assignments that can be performed in the kitchen at home by first year students. These were initially designed for the MOOC on thermodynamics that I developed a few years ago but they work equally well for undergraduate students and allow individuals to gain experience of conducting a simple experiment, recording and processing data, and write a short report about their findings [see post on ‘Blending learning environments‘ on November 14th, 2018 and ‘Slow down time to think [about strain energy]‘ on March 8th, 2017]. I have found that the participation rate is about the same as for traditional laboratory classes but different because students can learn from their mistakes in private and acquire some experimental skills . However, it is a long way from conducting labs for small cohorts in a laboratory where world-class research is in progress.
When the next cohort of undergraduate students were born, Wikipedia had only just been founded [January 2001] and Google had been in existence for just over a decade [since 1998]. In their lifetime, the number of articles on Wikipedia has grown to nearly 6 million in the English language, which is equivalent to 2,500 print volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and counting all language editions there are 48 million articles. When Leonardo Da Vinci was born in 1452, Johan Gutenberg had just published his first Bible using moveable type. By the time Leonardo Da Vinci was 20 years old, about 15 million books had been printed which was more than all of the scribes in Europe had produced in the previous 1500 years. Are these comparable explosions in the availability of knowledge? The proportion of the global population that is literate has changed dramatically from about 2%, when Leonardo was alive, to over 80% today which probably makes the arrival of the internet, Wikipedia and other online knowledge bases much more significant than the invention of the printing press.
Today what matters is not what you know but what you can do with the knowledge because access to the internet via your smart phone has made memorisation redundant.
I was on holiday last week in the Lake District. The weather was beautiful all week and we spent every day walking the hills around the Duddon Valley before sampling a different real ale each evening in the Manor Arms in Broughton-in-Furness. I also found time to read a small pile of books in which a recurring theme seemed to be death, perhaps because I was sensitised to it by the most substantial book on the pile: ‘All that remains: a life in death‘ by Sue Black, who is a leading professor of anatomy and forensic anthropology. In her brilliant memoir, she identifies three stages: dying, death and being dead. She worries most about the first stage, dying, which in common with most people, she would like to skip through as quickly as possible. However, she is intrigued by the threshold that separates dying from being dead and would like to experience it when the time comes; although that sounds like professional curiosity to me and I would be happy to skip through that too. As she points out, those fears that we might have about the third stage, being dead, depend on our belief in what happens to us after death. Not many people write books at the age 99, so I was curious to read a collection of essays by Diana Athill who was born in 1917 and published ‘Alive, Alive Oh!‘ in 2016. The final essay is entitled ‘Dead right’ and is about her recollection of a contribution to a discussion on a television programme about death made by the photographer, Rankin. The contributor said ‘that not existing for thousands and thousands of years before his birth had never worried him for a moment, so why should going back into non-existence at his death cause him dismay?’.