Many people take a week’s holiday at this time in the UK because Monday was the Spring Bank Holiday. We went walking in the Clwydian hills which we can see from our house to the south-west across the rivers Mersey and Dee. However, despite the walking on the wild side [see ‘Take a walk on the wild side‘ on August 26th, 2015], I did not feel particularly creative when I sat down to write this week’s blog post. Together with most of my academic colleagues, I am in the midst of reviewing student dissertations and marking end of year assessments. I have written in the past about the process of marking examinations and the tens of thousands of decisions involved in marking a large pile of scripts [see ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018]. However, the constraints imposed by the pandemic have changed this process for students and examiners because the whole exercise is conducted on-line. I have set an open-book examination in thermodynamics which the students completed online in a specified time period and submitted electronically. Their scripts were checked automatically for plagiarism during the submission process and now I have to mark about 250 scripts online. At the moment, marking online is a slower process than for hardcopy scripts but perhaps that’s a lack of skill and experience on my part. However, it seems to have same impact on my creativity by using up my mental bandwidth and impeding my ability to write an interesting blog post [see ‘Depressed by exams‘ on January 31st, 2018]!
This week I started teaching thermodynamics to first year undergraduate students for the first time in twelve months. I have had a break for a year because my course, which is only delivered once per year, was moved from first to second semester. Although I have continued to teach postgraduate courses, it’s been like a sabbatical enforced by timetable changes. Sadly, it’s over and I am back in the large lecture theatre in front of a couple of hundred of students – that makes it sound as if I don’t enjoy it which is not true but it does increase the intensity of the job because all of the other aspects of the role continue unabated. So, for me time appears to accelerate as I attempt to jam more activities into a week.
Time lies at the heart of much of thermodynamics although we tend not to deal with it explicitly; however, it is implicit in our use of changes in the state of a system to understand it. Quote Anaximander, the pre-Socratic philosopher & pupil of Thales of Miletus: ‘We understand the world by studying change, not by studying things’. Time also lies at the centre of the tangle of problems found at the intersection of the theories of gravity, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics. As Carlo Rovelli has remarked we are still in the dark about this tangle of problems; so, I will touch on it in my thermodynamics course but just to show students the limits of our knowledge and perhaps inspire one or two of them to think about tackling them in postgraduate studies.
Meanwhile, I plan tackle my challenges with time by slowing it down once a week with a walk in the Clwydian Hills where the landscape appears unchanging so that time stands still allowing me to relax.
Rovelli C, Seven brief lessons on physics, London, Penguin Books. 2016.
Wohllerben P, The hidden life of trees, London, William Collins, 2017.