Roy McWeeny

How do I come to be associated with LDI? My connection with schools and the development of learning skills has been tenuous --limited mainly to my own school days in a small industrial city in the North of England. I never saw the inside of a schoolroom anywhere else, or knew children who looked different from me or spoke different languages; nor, until much later in life, did I appreciate what a great gift education could be.

And yet I've spent the whole of my life in the enterprise of learning and teaching, the two sides of the same precious coin -- the transmission of knowledge and understanding between one human being and another, irrespective of race, social status, or personal beliefs. It took me twenty years to grow up and graduate in physics; and then I spent another fifty trying to pass on to others the things I'd learnt. Above all else I wanted to show that learning could be a source of pleasure and personal fulfillment; not just a means to an end -- that of earning a living.

Biographical Notes

I should start at the beginning: a few years after the First World War, with the uneasy peace, unemployment, and social unrest that followed it.

As an only child, with an absent father, I was brought up by my mother and my maternal grandparents. At the age of eleven, after my primary education in a state school, I was faced with my first big decision; it was between science and fine art, between `grammar school' (as it was in those days) and `art school'. I loved drawing and painting; but I was also an avid reader, especially of popular science books. So I knew that something very dramatic was happening in the world of science:

I had read about the `revolution in physics' (in fact the `quantum theory') and about atoms and electrons and the clever experiments people had made to determine their properties. There were many fascinating books by great scientists like James Jeans, Max Born, and Sir Arthur Eddington, who in the 1930s didn't feel it at all beneath them to write in simple language and for the general public -- including schoolboys like me! There were also public lectures in the Mechanics Institute, a long surviving hangover from the Industrial Revolution, where I learnt something about the Universe and its immensity -- with growing awe and curiosity. After this early initiation, I decided painting would have to wait.

I was a frequent visitor to the local public library, a big Victorian building with many shelves of equally Victorian science books, very often showing bearded gentlemen peering into their spectroscopes or doing exciting experiments with Whimshurst machines and Tesla coils -- producing dazzling electrical discharges and so on. To me, this was the beginning of the `Age of Electricity', which put me ahead of my grandfather, who belonged to the `Age of Steam'.

Grandfather was a watchmaker, who did much of his work at home and was always surrounded by mechanisms of one kind or another, ranging from tiny watches to grandfather clocks -- which he would restore with great skill, even reconstructing from first principles the wheels that had lost their teeth. I loved and admired him greatly: he taught me how to use tools, how to build something out of nothing but raw materials, and he showed me what it was to be a perfectionist. He opened many windows for me onto a world I might never have seen.

By the time I was 12 I had built, with his help, a Whimshurst machine that actually worked, producing big crackling sparks when I turned the handle, and allowed me to do all the textbook experiments on static electricity. Granddad and I made a great pair: I provided the `theory' and he the technical expertise.

There was no longer any doubt about what I wanted to do with my life -- physics. But the kind of physics it would be was determined quite by chance. The following year I won a school prize for physics: the prizes were always books and, after my early acquaintance with `popular' accounts of atomic structure and quantum theory, I had chosen a small Methuen monograph called simply "The Elements of Quantum Theory" by Temple. Of course, I didn't know that George Temple was a Professor of Mathematics in the University of London or that (having been a student of Eddington) his approach would be based on epistemological considerations and abstruse algebra -- quite unlike anything I had seen before. The shock was shared by my physics teacher, Mr Siddons, when I first showed him the book a couple of years later. I regarded Mr Siddons as a very clever man: if I asked him a question after the lesson he would always show me how to get the answer, starting from very first principles, with patience and evident pleasure. And, according to him, very few people in the whole world would be able to fully understand a book like that. He and Dirac had been fellow students at Cambridge; and Dirac had gone on to write, in 1929, the first edition of his great book on Quantum Mechanics -- one of the most original and seminal works of the century. So here was an irresistible challenge; and Temple's 'Elements' (to which I would return again and again during the next fifty years) was to be my key for entering the field.

I was 15 when the Second World War broke out. Schools in the cities were clearly vulnerable to attack from the air and younger children were dispersed elsewhere, but we who were preparing for university entrance had a uniquely rewarding experience: we visited the homes of our teachers, in small groups, to get our weekly assignments of reading, essay writing, problem solving, and be given hints on how to go about it. Given good teachers and eager students, this can be an ideal form of learning environment. With so much time to ourselves there was ample opportunity for straying from the prescribed syllabus; and in my case Temple's book had pointed the way. Sitting in the air-raid shelters, waiting for the bombs to drop, I read Weatherburn's books on Vector Analysis and was gratified to find I could begin to come to grips with Temple -- just the first few pages!

I completed my secondary education in 1942, with the war still raging, and had to choose between going into the armed forces or (having done well in both physics and mathematics) going to university to do `Physics with Radio' -- considered vitally important for the war effort -- with the proviso that I would have to complete my Honours Degree in a little over two years! This was the `big stick' approach to learning; but I was happy enough to accept it. The Radio component was not to my taste but its relevance for the development of radar was obvious; and, as it happened, radar did play an important part in winning the `Battle of Britain'.

With the award of a State Bursary, tenable at Leeds University, I was able to follow the course at a Physics Department with a fine reputation. At the same time I was within easy commuting distance from home, not distracted by the normal problems of daily life (student rooms were very hard to find, food was severely rationed, and my kitchen skills were very limited). So at last I was able to devote myself to learning physics and mathematics, plus a modest amount of electronics. By Christmas 1944, after exactly two years and three months, I was through -- with First Class Honours in Physics and with the much coveted Frank Parkinson Research Scholarship. Under wartime regulations the scholarship could not be taken up. I had to do what I was told, not what I wanted, and to that end I was directed to the Department of Fuel Technology and High Temperature Ceramics. But my initial dismay was ill-founded: the work was unexpectedly challenging. The ceramics were intended for use in jet engines, which made heavy demands on their exceptional hardness and high heat resistance, and I was given the job of studying the thermal stresses generated by rapid temperature changes. The standard textbooks of mathematical physics did offer solutions of heat flow and mechanical stress problems, but only for objects of simple shape, usually exposed to slow temperature variations -- never for anything remotely resembling a turbine blade in any `real-world' situation. So I had to enter the relatively new field of `numerical mathematics' which, with only a small mechanical desk calculator, required vast reserves of patience, self-discipline and determination. This was to stand me in good stead in later years -- starting sooner than I had expected.

During my final year before graduation I had written a short note, proposing a simple method for solving the 1-dimensional Schrödinger equation, and had asked one of the physics lecturers if he thought it could be useful. He asked if he could show it to a colleague in the Chemistry Department; and came back a few days later to say he and his colleague (who turned out to be another physicist, Stanley Rushbrooke, who was teaching statistical mechanics to chemists) were both of the opinion that, now the war was drawing to a close, I should be thinking about moving from ceramics to quantum mechanics. By a happy accident, Rushbrooke was at that time collaborating with C A Coulson, one of the pioneers in the application of quantum mechanics to problems of molecular electronic structure. Things went very fast and, through their great kindness and help, I was able to move to Oxford -- where Coulson was a research fellow in the Physical Chemistry Laboratory (the 'PCL') -- by the summer of 1946.

One thing I learnt very soon, was that the traditional barriers between the disciplines were rapidly dissolving if you had trained in a 'hard' science, like physics, it was accepted that you were a competent scientist and, as such, were well equipped for entry into a host of other areas of science. Even as a chemistry research student I was expected to give a hand as part-time tutor to students of mathematics in Balliol College; and when formulating a project for my doctor's degree (D.Phil.) I was given a copy of a thesis by Nils Swartholm on "The Binding Energies of the Lightest Atomic Nuclei" -- as a model for what might be done for molecules! Another thing I learnt quite suddenly was that as a "senior student from another university" the statutes required me to submit my doctoral dissertation within only two years. So once again the pressure was on!

During my second year at Oxford, I was approached informally as a potential candidate for a Lectureship in Physical Chemistry at King's College, University of Durham. My D.Phil. dissertation was submitted and approved in 1948. And I was duly appointed as Lecturer in the Physical Chemistry Department, where I was to teach Mathematics for Chemists, Quantum Chemistry, and Statistical Mechanics. That was how I became a quantum chemist. The appointment was a bold move (both for the Faculty and for me), as at that time few chemists knew anything about quantum theory -- and I knew even less about chemistry.

Reflections on the Educational Process

Education begins of course in the family. I spoke of the early inspiration provided by my grandfather, who showed me how --starting from nothing -- I could make things. That inspiration lasted far beyond my childhood: by the time I was ready for university I had built my own science laboratory in the roof space above my bedroom; and when I needed equipment I would make it, or buy 'government surplus' instruments (that could at that time be found on junk stalls in the market place) and adapt them to my own needs. I built a piston oil pump for producing a vacuum, and then a mercury diffusion pump for getting a higher vacuum -- so that I could do experiments with cathode rays. In the process I had to learn something of the art of the glass blower, armed only with a Bunsen burner and a source of compressed air, which I concocted from an aspirator running in reverse. The sheer energy of youth is phenomenal: if it can be tapped by good teaching, or the provision of any kind of 'know-how' in easily accessible and understandable form, there is no end to what can be done.

I never spoke of my mother, and her mother, but they too had a powerful formative effect on my early development. My mother, in particular, would insist on my expressing myself in good English - whether spoken or written - and on keeping alive my interests in the visual arts, even after I had so decisively chosen a different route. She also tried, from when I was about ten years old, to teach me to play the piano, though not at first with much success.

Her insistence on the importance of linguistic skills remained with me; without it, how can anyone ever hope to teach? With music, on the other hand, she had at least sown the seeds. I came back to it in my own time, with mounting enthusiasm but not much application: then, after seeing my struggling with Bach and Beethoven and attempting the impossible, she sent me to a good teacher. Mr. Billson told me to forget everything I thought I knew and to start again from the very beginning. He could see I knew what I wanted to express; but I just didn't know what to do with my fingers and thumbs -- and he did. When he was a boy, his own teacher -- a concert pianist from Germany, had been a pupil of the great Liszt so I knew I was in good hands. He inspired me and I willingly devoted hours a day to scales and exercises, striving to reach the standards of precision he demanded. I worked hard at it all through my years at Leeds and Oxford, reaching a level of competence at which I could begin to enjoy the music and, perhaps equally important, appreciate the talent and dedication of those who had arrived at the top.

This maternal legacy could be summed up in a few words: whatever you really want to do, do it with passion -- and with an expectation of success. The great challenge for those of us who are involved in education is how to inspire the young people who follow us; to make them want to learn and to understand.

The Way Ahead?

There is widespread disaffection, in many countries of the world, with the traditional school system in which all of 'Human Knowledge' is rigidly divided into 'Subjects' (Arithmetic, Geometry, Geography, Science, and so on) -- each making little reference to the others -- studied and examined at various times and various levels. This has led to the blossoming of organizations such as the Learning Development Institute and the Pari Center for New Learning, concerned with making relevant learning opportunities available around the world. For the first time in recorded history, all of human knowledge is indeed accessible, to all people in all countries, through the phenomenal growth of the Internet. We must be prepared to fully exploit such possibilities.

Science Education, with all its potential for improving the general living conditions of humanity, is an obvious target for massive and sustained development. To this end a Series of Workbooks in Science is currently under development. Three Workbooks, each running to around 100 pages, are already available for downloading, along with specimen chapters from two others. They are aimed at young people in the age range 14--19 years; and the treatment is thematic, cutting across and linking different subject areas, to expose the underlying unity of Science.

The origins of this project go back more than fifty years, to when I took up my first job (see Biographical Notes, above) as the first physicist to be appointed to a University Chemistry Department in the UK. In those days First Year chemists were not expected to know anything about mathematics, beyond being able to count, and not much more about physics. My first task was to teach a long course on Mathematics for Chemists. So I had to start (once again) ' from the very beginning' ; and I've been doing that ever since. In other words, I became a ' first principles' teacher; and with the passing of the years I became more and more convinced that the fundamental principles we use in 'explaining' the physical world are simple enough to be understood by anyone. Many years later, I gave the Sadham Basu Memorial Lecture in Calcutta, with the title "Theories and calculations -- the search for simplicity". Basu never had access to powerful electronic computers and was compelled to look for simple models; and yet he was widely regarded as the 'father of theoretical chemistry in India'. Much can be learnt from his way of working. There are people who start with simple ideas and disguise them until they look impenetrable and profound; and people who work the other way round, realising that underneath all the complexity one can often find primitive concepts that can be explained with a few pictures. Like Basu, in spite of my love for mathematics, I belong firmly in the second group.

Of course I didn't stay in that one job for the rest of my life; so many exciting things were happening in science and there was an irresistible urge to travel and to collaborate with others, all working at the 'frontiers' of research. But during all those years I had at the back of my mind the elementary science book I never wrote. It was to be called "The Journey'" and would be an imaginary journey of discovery into Physical Science, going from prehistoric times up to the end of the twentieth century. But it would not follow the traditional school-room approach, with different bits of knowledge put into separate boxes, with labels like 'algebra', 'analytical geometry', 'dynamics', 'statics', 'organic chemistry', and so on. Nor would it follow a historical route, with all of 'Euclid' being done (in small pieces) before straying from the purely pictorial path and using our knowledge of numbers and algebra to overcome the problems that had defeated the Greek philosophers of two thousand years ago. For history is full of missed opportunities, blind alleys, and blunders -- which all held up progress for hundreds of years. "The Journey" would be based on hindsight, on what we know now, when the debris of discarded theories has been swept away and the underlying unity of science is exposed, along with its logical integrity.

Fifty years ago the time for writing such a book was not ripe; and handwritten drafts of the first few chapters were 'filed and forgotten'. But in a rapidly changing world, where material, economic and political changes far outstrip the growth and renewal of the educational system, new pressures are building. Whole generations of young people are eager to learn, even when teachers and schools may be hard to find; and they want to learn quickly, not by studying along traditional lines but rather by looking at science as it is now -- not as it was at the time of Lavoisier.

Two years ago I took out the faded pages and started turning them into the first few WorkBooks in Science.