Einstein's Universe: Professor inspires pupils

Friday, 26 July 2013
Professor Brian Foster tours NZ with Einstein's Universe

By Richard Mays, The Tribune

Science is in vogue, if Warwick Grady's experience is anything to go by.

The Palmerston North Intermediate Normal School science teacher was impressed when he received 55 applications from pupils to give up an evening and a morning of their school holidays and in school uniform.

It's not every day that the head of experimental physics at Oxford University - and some- one who has conducted experiments at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland - drops by.

A member of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Warwick had been forewarned that Professor Brian Foster was bringing his science and music show Einstein's Universe to the Speirs Centre. The 20th century's foremost scientist, Albert Einstein, was an enthusiastic violinist and in 2005, the World Year of Physics, Brian began working with acclaimed British violinist Jack Liebeck on a musical and visual tour of Einstein's ccomplishments and legacy.

The multi-media lecture featuring explanations of Einstein's Theory of Relativity, the discoveries based on his work and the nature of matter that includes live musical interludes of the great man's favourite violin pieces, has now been performed more than 200 times around the world.

Einstein's Universe came to Palmerston North last week as a collaboration between the Royal Society and Chamber Music New Zealand. In the audience of the lecture were 14 of Warwick's pupils.

The next morning 10 of the youngsters had a private audience with Brian over breakfast at Bethany's on The Square. How did that happen?

"I rang him at Oxford and asked," Warwick shrugs. He expected to get the brush- off but instead ended up talking with an amiable and approachable man called Brian.

The affable professor was only too pleased to agree to the request, and enjoyed the opportunity to get feedback on his performance from the 11 and 12 year olds, and to find out about aspects of life in New Zealand.

"Let me ask you a question," he says when there was a pause in the questions about the nature of generating high speed sub-atomic particle collisions in the world's largest machine.

"Did you understand what I was talking about?"

There were nods around the table, and further questions, one on the paradox of Schrodinger's Cat.

"It's a paradox about the possibilities of something. For something to happen, you also need it not to happen."

Brian also wanted to know about the school's maths syllabus.

"In particle physics you can only understand the answer if you work it out with maths," he explains.

The Large Hadron Collider is a 27 kilometre subterranean ring with superconducting electromagnets cooled to within two degrees of absolute zero. It means scientists can use large amounts of electricity without creating heat resistance.

"It's rewarding to look out over an audience and to talk to people about science who wouldn't normally go to a science lecture," Brian says of the music/physics format.

Noting that there were more girls than boys around the breakfast table, he cites double Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie as the archetypal female science role model.

"We've got to find a way of making physics more attractive to girls," he tells his young audience.

As a teenager, Brian had to decide whether to study history or physics.

"History I can do as a hobby. You can't do physics as a hobby," he says.

"I was really interested in astronomy and at university I was going to study physics and astronomy jointly. Astronomy is an observational science over things you can't control. I became so interested in physics, I forgot about astronomy."

Henry Gong, 12, summed up the reasons for breaking out of school holiday mode.

"I thought it was a once in a lifetime chance to meet some- one as great as the professor, and I'd give up time to do this. It was really interesting."