Mourning The Rev

There will be no podcast today as a mark of respect for Robin’s and Thomas’ dear friend The Reverend Tim Hardingham who was tragically killed whilst riding his bike with his family on Sunday 25th October. Tim was a guest in episode 21 of our first season.

21. The Rev

Below are Thomas’s and Robin’s personal memories of Tim who was a friend and mentor to us both.

Thomas says:

Tim was unique. A one off. A gentle man. A gentleman. I’ll never forget meeting him for the first time. I’m tall but he towered over me in his leather jacket and dog collar. I looked up to him then and never really stopped. There was no part of physics teaching where he could not provide support based on experience. I used to ask him questions that had bothered me for years and he would sit with me and talk me through it with quiet amusement. Amusement at the beauty of physics, amusement at the joy of talking about it.

Tim was outwardly chaotic at times and could be infuriating to be partnered with. Whilst you knew his side would be taught magnificently (I say “taught” but Tim just seemed to effortlessly magic the knowledge in to the students’ heads), my cheeky head of Physics (Robin) would gleefully tell me that I was responsible for prising the coursework out of Tim’s “filing system”. Tim’s assertion that he never lost a piece of work in his holistic method of stacking papers was an example of his solid belief that God moved in mysterious ways.

Tim was such a giving person that for a caring man of deep religious conviction, becoming ordained was inevitable. I think it just allowed him to do even more good. He was a quiet example of his faith and never thrust it at you. He knew I was atheist and would always reassure me that his assemblies were not overtly Christian; his Infernal Consumption Engine assembly was a masterpiece that only he could deliver and keep 300 fourteen year olds in rapt attention.

He was a delightful one-off and it would tickle him that I feel blessed to have known him.

Robin says:

It might seem a contradiction, to be a practicing vicar and a physics teacher, but once you met Tim Hardingham, somehow the puzzle became clear. Tim was pin-sharp, but grounded; fascinated with the physical world, yet deeply concerned for everyone around him. Even those who met him briefly were struck by this extraordinary man whose twinkling eyes and ready smile belied an uncompromising educator and intellect.
I first met Tim when I started as an ‘in-school’ trainee in 2008; he was a veteran, spoken about with awe by his science colleagues. We worked out that he qualified to teach the year after I was born (1970), and he had honed his skills over the 38 years since. Watching him teach I was in awe; would I ever be that skilful in the classroom? The answer 12 years on, a resounding “No!”
Tim’s teaching style was out of vogue at the time. He believed that physics was best understood by encouraging analysis and thought, and he would challenge students and take them outside their comfort zone. His method was more probing questions and challenge than 6-page lesson plans and learning objectives, so Tim’s methods were often out of step with the prevailing educational trends. Where superficial judgements on his teaching infuriated me, Tim was gracious. Typically, he was more concerned that others, less secure in their practice, were being undermined by adherence to ill-conceived ideology and it saddened him. Tim always put others before himself, and the only times I ever saw him angry and upset were when colleagues were treated shoddily.
Tim taught me valuable lessons by the score, but the ability to be gracious under fire whilst quietly following your convictions, is one of his skills that I will strive for and never come close to matching.
Time spent with Tim was always a blessing. He was generous with that time, even though his schedule was frantic, and when Thomas and I collared him to take part in an early episode of the Podcast he was enthusiastic supportive and – of course – fascinating. If I started to document all that Tim taught me about physics, about teaching and dare I say, about integrity, this post would run to volumes, and he would be uncomfortable with that.
So how to pay tribute to this wonderful man in a way that he would be happy with? I hope Tim would be happy that, when I have those days (you know those days) when it just seems… hard, my habit is still to ask, “What would Tim do?” When I think of how best to approach teaching a topic, I imagine Tim introducing it, and invariably inspiration follows. When I map the years ahead of me in my career and wonder how to balance the teaching I love with the increasing tangential demands, it will be Tim’s example that I follow. I cherish that in one of the last conversations I had with him, I was able to acknowledge this and tell him that I was learning to be “a bit more Tim”.
I think we could all do with being “a bit more Tim”.


Sparking a Debate: Physics CPD for Teachers

I have been like a kid with a new Lego set this month, unpacking IOP Spark and building all sorts of imaginative lesson plans with the finely engineered building blocks on offer.  When I was in the classroom, this sort of link to the physics teaching nexus was invaluable, and from what you tell me, lack of everyday contact with fellow physics teachers is the professional equivalent of solitary confinement.  

As we understand more about what makes good professional development for teachers, the problem of isolation becomes more pressing.  The quality of teachers’ CPD has improved dramatically over the last few years, and thank goodness!  We can all recall the bad old days, crammed onto tables with colleagues from every department; a fug of jaded resignation in the air; an overpaid consultant telling us that children are all unique (I mean, I had no idea).  Not so much profound as profoundly unhelpful.  “Think of all the stuff I could be doing…” our brains would scream in unison.  

Expectations have changed.  Increasingly discerning, teachers are less resigned to poor quality CPD. Unsurprisingly, they want their precious time investment to pay real dividends.  Teachers are looking for more subject-specific CPD.  It makes sense: as a physics teacher, which course would appeal more, “behaviour management in the classroom” or “behaviour management in the physics lab”?  

If a teacher is going to invest in CPD, they want tangible improvements for their students, and this is a challenge for any CPD: does it transform practice to raise attainment?  Subject-specific CPD is more likely to hit the mark here: the more precise and targeted the intervention, the more likely you will be able to measure a result.  Generic pedagogy will struggle to provide that level of specificity.  

CPD becomes punitive when driven by high stakes accountability.  It is best when it is collaborative, and participants feel able to take and give feedback in a supportive atmosphere.  This collaborative model is powerful (Lesson Study has beneficial outcomes), but physics teachers need the chance to share practice with fellow physicists.  A room full of teachers produces good discussions, but the richness goes up an order of magnitude when the teachers share a common specialism.  

Teachers are increasingly wresting control of CPD from the tyranny of “one-size fits all”, setting their own agenda, collaborating and looking hard for subject-specific development.  A rosy picture, then?  It would be, but for physics teachers, there are some dark clouds in need of a silver lining.  

The scandalous and sustained lack of specialist physics teachers means that on average, they have access to far fewer collaborative networks.  Generally, they also have to support the development of those drafted in to fill the shortage of trained physicists. Rarely is this recognised with extra time allocation or an increased CPD budget to allow them out of school to access their professional network.  

Higher than average early-career attrition combines with the overall shortage to leave an even smaller pool of experience to draw on when we look for the seasoned subject custodians so valued by young teachers.  These figures in turn are under pressure to counter a shortage in their schools and beyond, and so the cycle continues.  

I write this as we swelter in another record-breaking summer, politicians doubling-down on frippery and nonsense with elephants in the room increasingly becoming mammoth in scale.  Without a scientific plan for a solution to climate change and the associated environmental degradation, humanity faces a bleak period.  We must speak truth to power: physics will be at the heart of any technical solution and we must promote the subject if we expect it to save us.  

As we head, full of optimism, towards a new school year, my plea to you as a physics teacher is to make some noise in support (defence?) of your subject.  Politely insist that the unique challenges of your job are acknowledged, and ask how they are going to be addressed.  Point out the importance of physics in dealing with the biggest issues facing humanity.  Point to the pay premium attracted by physicists, not just as a factor that ‘pulls’ physics teachers away from teaching, but also as a great career choice for your students.  Schools are all about prioritisation, so make sure physics climbs the ladder.  

If you need help, engage with IOP for support.  Add to your credibility: become a member, get your CPhys, apply for Fellowship.  Make sure your school is affiliated and keep in touch with the latest via  To make a case for physics teaching look at Jenni French’s excellent summary from 2015 on the Gatsby website. 


The Young Modulus – Instructions

This is a way to determine the Young Modulus as an individual, rather than group practical. For years I thought that you needed a pulley for the wire, but it turns out you don’t. Without that limiting factor, it becomes a pfaff reducing exercise.


Get a plank of “whatever you can find” width, about 1.2m long, drive a screw in about 5cm from one end. Photocopy a normal ruler at 100% then at 90%. Check the reduction is accurate! Use the 90% to make a vernier scale. Get about 2m of 32swg copper wire and tape the vernier scale to the wire at 1m from the nail. Line the vernier up with the 100% scale and gently hang 1N weights to the end of the wire that hangs off the end of the plank, measuring each extension. The diameter of the wire is done traditionally by using a micrometer or looking up the diameter of swg wire in mm.

Steps and Photos

This is one of our dynamics ramps, but any old plank could be used. It needs to be more than 1m long and should stick out over the desk to give the weights room to hang. This is 32swg copper wire, diameter 0.27mm
90% photocopy of the ruler. Do check that 10.0cm in the copy is 9.0cm on the real ruler (some photocopiers reduce by a few percent as a matter of course). It may take some trial and error (keep notes for next time…). In the experiment I took photos of, I used a real ruler for the 100%, but realise a photocopy would be better.
The vernier scale at 1m from the screw. It is sellotaped on. ± 2mm is fine (± 0.2% uncertainty is negligible compared to the extension and area)
Wear goggles, but you also need some protection from flying wires (not such an issue with copper, but other alloys can store a lot of energy). These cardboard pieces help prevent the wire from flying around. e.g. with 32swg copper you 1-10N is fine and prety safe if it breaks, but with nichrome you might want 1-40N in 4N steps which is altogether more interesting if it snaps.)
I use a 10g hanger to tension the wire so that there is a nice talking point about the ice hockey stick shape of the graph (a false extension on the first weight because it is taking up the slack and pulling out kinks). Note the hanger is near the floor and there is a sandbag in case the weights fall: it stops you putting your foot there more than protecting the floor.

For those of you who assess against CPAC, this is a good experiment for 3a (Identifying Risks) and 3b (Working Safely). I use the Hazard | Risk | Control approach to a risk assessment. e.g.

Wire breaking.Flailing wire causing damage
to exposed skin/eyes.
Weight falling on feet.
Eye protection.
Weights over wire for kinetic
energy transfer.
Sandbag on floor.

I realise that the weights on foot issue is not a massive one, and using copper wire makes the flailing wire unlikely too, but they do need practise thinking about these things for bigger challenges ahead.

The main pfaff is getting the top ruler (the scale) parallel with the wire. The bottom ruler is just raising the vernier to the height of the top scale. I now realise I could dispense with both rulers and use a 100% photocopy (or thinner ruler!) for the scale.
This reading would be 828.8mm.
Normal micrometer screw gauge practice for the diameter (three times). Check the micrometer for zero error. I would do a whole lesson on micrometers well before attempting Young modulus, and would give a few a nice zero error using the little adjustment spanner that comes with them. Area is πd²/4 (rather than finding r, which just introduces another opportunity for mistakes). Uncertainty here (assuming a perfect zero) is ± 0.005mm (it is a reading) or 1.9% for the diameter so 3.7% for the area, which I would round up to 4% (I always err on the side of caution).
My lab book, but before I stuck in a screw instead of using a G clamp! With 1m of 32swg copper you get about 1 mm extension per 4 N weight on the wire. The wire starts to slip at around 10-13N, and the general guidance is 5 < number of readings < 10 so the whole experiment can comfortably be done with one hanger with ten 1N weights on it. Assuming we discount the first couple of readings, making 2N our “zero” the uncertainty in the first real extension (2 to 3N) is ± 0.1mm on 0.3mm or 33%, but this reduces so by the fourth point (2 to 6N) the uncertainty is ± 0.1mm on 0.9mm or 11%.

Three graphs of real data showing how the pulley (middle) makes no difference, the first and third are with the wire simply hanging over the edge of the plank. The final one (green dots) is Hooke’s Law.

I also made a video.

I hope you found this useful. Any comments, suggestions etc. Please contact us through twitter on @physicstp or use the form below.

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Podcast Publish Fails

I think I am getting a bit blasé about publishing, two fails in two weeks. ?

When I create a Podcast Post I have to do three main jobs for the podcast to release properly:

  1. Upload and attach the mp3
  2. Tell the Post when to go live (5:00am on the next term-time Thursday – an arbitrary choice that I have stuck to)
  3. Tell the Post it is a Podcast Episode (rather than a blog etc.)

Last week I failed at #2, this week I failed with #3. Both cases were because I changed the auto-tweet text. For some reason you have to completely start again from scratch if you want to change the release auto-tweet. This means copying and pasting all the content in to a new page, usually late at night, usually a bit frustrated…

I am making a checklist now. #1 is

“Check the damn tweet doesn’t have a spelling mistake!”

Enough procrastination. I have a pile of lab books to mark. ?

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Links for Technicians

We were contacted by Seamus Smith who told us about some more sites for Technicians. I have just slightly tweaked the site to have two more pages in the menu structure: Technician Sites and Physics Teaching Sites.

One of the sites Seamus mentioned is TecHKnow which has a huge directory of sites, that makes our pages look a little weedy. But on the basis that anything that links back to them helps, I am leaving our pages up.

I am still searching for the motherload on Physics Teaching sites. If you know it, please let us know using our twitter handle @physicstp or the form below.

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Physics Teacher Sites

9th April 2019: This blog post has been recreated as a Page: “Physics Teaching Sites” and any future updates will be made there.

A non-exhuastive list of sites that have been drawn to my attention since Episode 18, Spin, Shared Resources and Social Media. As I hear about more I will attempt to add them. by Paul Reynolds, and the subject of the podcast. Mentioned by Thomas in the podcast, this is Andy Darvill’s site, and was first active in the early 90s. It must be one of the first. Suggested by Patrick Kaplo and aimed at American educators, I am still waiting to be accepted but very interested to see what is in there. An American College lecturer’s site with blogs and resources. Brian Lane is a Physics Professor in Florida. He teaches people to build models in code through this youtube channel. and are fronts for youtube channels about a range of topics supporting Physics.

PhysicsNet: “If you want to understand everything from the smallest building blocks of matter to the large scale structure of the universe then Physics is the subject for you. Good luck with your studies.”

If you want to suggest another link please tweet us @physicstp or email using the form below.

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Vacuum Cannon Tips

After sending out a few cannons, I decided to send out a “Tips” sheet in the cannon packaging to help people get started. I’m reproducing it here for those who didn’t get it:

Vacuum Cannon Tips

  • The pipe suppliers are used to providing for large scale filtration systems. They care not about little nicks and scratches on the pipes. I sand off the more obvious burrs (so the pipe might look a bit battered) but they will have no effect on the performance of your cannon.
  • Please don’t underestimate how loud it is close up; it makes your ears ring for some time afterwards if you fire it with no protection. The shooter DEFINITELY needs ear defence of some sort because they won’t have their hands free to cover their ears.
  • Flanges (pictured) do make it easier to prepare and fire. There are many ways to obtain some. You can use cardboard, old mini-whiteboards, 3D printing… Thomas found that his tech department were very happy to be involved, knocked out laser cut flanges within a day and enjoyed the test firing process!
  • The tapered holes for the valve make a very good seal, but if in doubt PTFE plumbing tape will make the seal even better. Thomas has not needed it apart from the early prototype.


Please warn your colleagues! You don’t want an evacuation because of a suspected shooter on the premises. This has happened. “Duds” are possible, but can be mostly avoided with the following approach:

  1. Don’t forget to roll the ping-pong ball all the way down the tube. This is easier before you add the tape because of the ball’s tight fit.
  2. It is worth taking care with the taping of each end. The rear just needs to be secure. The front needs to be secure but not too secure! Take care on the front, cut a square piece of tape and carefully fit it to the front of the tube. Try to fold back and stick as little as possible. You want the least folding and sticking that will support the vacuum. Trial and error will help you work out the optimum. We believe the tape blows off, so you want that to happen before the ball arrives.
    (If you have flanges, this step is much easier, just cut a square and make sure it is securely pressed all round the circle of the tube and gently stuck to the flange.)
  3. Let the pump run for a while. You know very quickly if you have a bad seal because you will hear cracks from the tape and then the frustrating hiss of air being sucked in. If it is working nicely it gets to a pretty good vacuum very quickly but if you wait 10 seconds or so it continues to increase.
  4. Pierce the rear tape. Scissors are fine. It fails catastrophically and very very loudly. It is worth checking there is no tape hiding in the tube before loading the next ball.
  5. Please share your experiences on twitter @physicstp or Facebook.

Making a Vacuum Cannon

The Tube

The tube does not need to be super strong (the tape will fail long before the tube), but it does need to be close in diameter to a table-tennis ball (40mm). The right tube is known as Imperial 1½ inch PVC, common in the USA but not so much in the UK. I collected it from Koi Logic for £5.05 a metre since delivery is quite expensive and it is not too far away. CLEAPSS suggest the plastic pipe shop where it is about the same cost but you get a longer length (so more expensive and a lot of waste).

1m of tube is fine, it is easy to transport and store. You can get tremendous speeds from a 1m tube. CLEAPSS recommend that you do not go longer than 1.5m. I chose 1m because above that, the delivery charges get silly.

The valve and its Hole

You need a way to connect the vacuum pump to the tube. Patrick Kaplo sent me a link to the hose elbow he used in the USA and CLEAPSS suggests a metal schrader valve that you just self tap (force in to the PVC) and glue in to the pipe. Their instructions here are a bit vague on the size of drill bit you need. A very unscientific poll of physics teacher friends suggested that they all had rubber hoses on their vacuum pumps so the elbow is much more sensible.

Being a bit of a perfectionist I thought that tapping it in to a tapered thread would allow for cheaper components, a better seal and for replacing components if needed. I found some cheap nylon fittings at Wreking Pneumatics, all they needed was a correctly threaded hole.

For pneumatics I learned you really should used tapered thread (BSPT) holes to get a good seal with no need for tape, glue or sealant. Tracy tools are helpful on the phone and sell reasonably priced tap, dies and drills. I wasn’t sure what would work best so bought a plug tap and the correct size drill (8.4mm for the ⅛” plug tap) for both ¼” and ⅛” tapered thread holes. The prototype has ¼” BSPT but I learned that the schrader valves suggested by CLEAPSS and potential vacuum gauges all use ⅛” BSPT so the ¼” tap I bought was redundant. (I actually bought another but it took so long to come in the post via amazon I gave up on it; Tracy Tools delivered within 24 hours of ordering.) Tapping PVC is a doddle compared to steel.

The Tape

*just* an overlap

The tape was the cheapest “three inch” (78mm wide) tape I could find on eBay, just bought in bulk. The prototype used “two inch” and worked, but barely covered the width of the tube (see photo).

The Balls

The balls are practise balls from eBay, bought in bulk. “Real” balls are much stiffer and about twice the mass. I bought 300. Softer balls expand a little in the tube I think, so possibly get more push, and being lighter can accelerate faster? This is worth investigating perhaps?

No Flanges ?

Flanges make a great stand for the cannon and provide a good surface for the tape to adhere too. The best I could find was £8 a flange, but that would almost double the cost of the cannon. Robin and I tested the cannon with no flanges with very good results. My tech department whipped two up for free with no problem and you can make basic ones out of cardboard or 3D print them. There are many options. Our tube’s diameter was 48mm (Officially 48.26mm according to the Standard). This is a good opportunity for the school to personalise their cannon!

Adding a Pressure Gauge

I found pressure gauges on eBay for £7 including postage. They come with a ⅛” BSPT (taper) male and screw straight in to another ⅛” tapped hole. Just search for:
1/8″ BSPT pressure gauge.

If you make one, do let us know how you get on:

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Selling a Vacuum Cannon

We are selling Vacuum Cannons in the shop. I am setting it up with some trepidation: if nobody buys one I will be several tens of pounds out of pocket. If everyone buys one I will be unable to make them fast enough to keep up with demand. Of course, the most likely thing is somewhere in-between. Being part-time I can respond quite fast, and I can limit the number I have to make and dispatch by setting the stock levels in our shop software. And through the piss-poor planning you have come to expect, we are releasing them a day before I go away for a week over half-term. Oops.

The pay-off is that more people will get to play demonstrate with this fantastic toy piece of equipment. I had never heard of it, nor had Robin, but CLEAPSS are all over it so it must be pretty well known. When I tested the prototype in the kitchen I didn’t really think through the consequences of a ball travelling at several hundred miles an hour vs my kitchen wall. There was ball debris everywhere; I found one shard 5m away on a high window sill two weeks later.

I have set up stock of 2 in the shop but with unlimited back orders. Once I know what the demand is (or indeed if there is any!) I will start making and shipping them in batches. I intend to keep doing them at £20 until I lose the will to go through all the guff of making, packing and dispatching them. Then I will either give up or raise the price. So buy now to avoid disappointment.

Anyone with access to a vacuum pump can of course make their own. If that is your plan, you could use the CLEAPSS guidance I mentioned above. I also made my own “How To” notes which includes links to where I purchased things.

If you make one, please let us know how it goes.

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Using The Rope Model of Electricity

In the next podcast we inevitably talk about the rope model. I tried it a few times in the past and hated it ?. It was only in making the podcast that I finally understood how to do it and how good it is. Not knowing how to do it is as much a function of my comfort with the donation model as it is my being alone in my school with no other physicist to talk to. But talking to Robin and Stuart about electricity really got me thinking. 

When I did the rope model it didn’t work because I had quite a few kids involved in the demo. I found it really hard to make the rope run smoothly through their hands (not least because the rope had a huge knot in it!) and it was a very static sort of demo. There was no fluidity at all, no flow. I had visions of attaching pulleys to the walls of the room to make it work (I like big scale). I chatted to Stuart about this and he was able to tell me a way to do it that worked. It works so well, and is so easy to do. I was bowled over.

my recipe for an effective rope model demo:

  1. Have a rope that is in a 3-4m loop where the join is as smooth as possible. (Cutting and melting together a rope is ideal).
  2. Choose one student only.
  3. Hold the loop and pass the other end to the student. Tell them to grip it lightly (they don’t want rope burns) in one hand with the rope passing vertically down through their fist (this is the detail I never understood – one student, one hand).
  4. Explain that the rope is the electrons and the grip is the resistance.
  5. Pull the rope hand over hand through their (one, stationary) hand.
    • Question: What do you feel in your hand? 
    • Answer you want: Warmer
  6. Tell them to add another hand, holding with the same light grip. The rope will get harder to pull, make this obvious, it will naturally run more slowly.
    • Question: why is the rope moving more slowly?
    • Answer you want: because there is more resistance.
    • Question: how can I increase the current to make it move as fast as before?
    • Answer you want: Pull harder.
    • Explain that this means more energy being delivered by the cell to the rope, or greater pd.
  7. Pull harder, to make the rope move at the original speed again.
  8. Tell them to grip tighter with one hand, but not to tell you which hand that is.
    1. Question: what has happened to the rope speed?
    2. Answer you want: slower.
    3. Question: does the rope/the pd know which hand is gripping harder?
    4. Answer you want: no.
    5. Question: what is happening at the tighter hand?
    6. Answer you want: warmer.
    7. Explain how this is energy transfer
    8. Question: are the electrons in any way different before and after the hands?
    9. Answer you want: no.
    10. Remind them that electrons just go where they are pushed/pulled by the pd, they aren’t changed, they don’t make a choice, they just go where they go.
  9. Get another rope, get them to hold one loop in each hand, but you pull them together. You can model parallel with this but I wouldn’t go too far as the model does tend to break down a bit.
  10. You can show AC nicely too. Remove one loop then tell them to hold their fist horizontally, not vertically. Now grip the loop in both your hands and pull it backwards and forwards. The hand gets warm just the same.

Good luck with this. Maybe report back in the forum?

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