A-levels: Atom bombs, measurements and etymology

Published: December 28, 2010

In A’ Level Physics, tennis balls feel the need to fall off cliffs so that you can work out the distance covered.

One of my best friends is half Sindhi and half Pathan, which means that she can kick, scream and yell in four different languages. How I wished I had her linguistic virtuosity at 9am one morning this week when I turned over my Physics paper to start the exam only to be lost for words. I had no one to blame but myself. This was the subject that involves flipping paper cones off the back of a ruler and going cross-eyed trying to determine the terminal velocity they achieve. In A’ Level Physics, tennis balls feel the need to fall off cliffs so that you can work out the distance covered.

Planets go bing and boom for no apparent reason in Physics other than because Newton said so. And Newton, the nerd, said a lot of things.

The worst feeling doesn’t, however, come when you blank out on a Physics exam. People do that all the time. What kills (terminal velocity, anyone?) is the knowledge that you walked into this with your eyes open: the practicals, the multiple-choice questions or MCQs, the “final value of x”. At the start of the term, you were just one tick mark away from being a liberal arts student. It could have been History, Sociology, English Literature, Urdu Literature! I could have been taught by people with degrees in Political Science, who are on a first-name basis with the staff at Liberty Books; people who are, in short, personalities, as opposed to your Science teachers, who say words like “meyourment”.

Not that it was always like that. Back in primary school, if you said you liked History class, kids would throw you under the tree decorated by crow droppings, steal your Cocomo and never pick you to play cricket with them. This was the wrong side of the academic tracks: Science was fun, Math was hard, History was boring, and Pakistan Studies was boring to the power of 10. I could tell you who Sher Shah Suri was, but only if you bribed me with an iPad, because there is no way I am going through that mental torture again.

What they don’t tell you, however, is that the academic divisions boomerang after O’ Levels. In A’ Levels, the new academic elitists study History and Literature. This isn’t the Muhammad bin Qasim history of your class VII days. This is Liberal Arts. These students are the type of people who actually read coffee-table books on the Kashmiri Shawl and the arch in Mughal architecture, and ask the big questions such as ‘What is love?’ and ‘Why are we here?’ instead of “Yaar, what was the match score yesterday?”. Forget Twilight, Keats was the original bloodsucker.

But here’s the thing. The Liberal Arts students may seem cool but who really looks up when one of them asks,

“Can Napoleon be seen as a son of the revolution?”.

I’m firmly convinced that they just perpetuate the stereotype that Liberal Arts is somehow cooler and more hip. On the other hand, everyone looks up excitedly when the Science student bursts into the room and cries:

“Hey guys! I just dissected a goat’s lung!”

Which brings me back to 9 am, when I was killing myself for choosing Physics because I had no idea how to figure out why a rocket moves forward when 50,000 gallons of liquid hydrogen jets out of its bum. The Second Law of Momentum, duh. The boy next to me was angrily whispering, ‘What a fazool examiner’. The girl two rows ahead was circling flowers on her empty MCQ sheet. It was the kind of exam paper which caused people to sway back and forth while reciting the six kalimas, hoping somehow that the formula for projectile motion would burst forth in holy light.

And then the answer sheets were collected and the invigilator said, “You may leave”.

I stood up and walked out with a sense of relief that it wasn’t just me who was confused about whether ‘a thread of mercury’ in a thermometer could actually be called a dhaaga or not. My sense of relief deepened as I stepped out into the sunshine and saw the Liberal Arts students waiting outside for their exam to start. They too were swaying back and forth – over notes on Bismarck and Mazzini – their eyes shut in last-minute revision on the spread of Nationalism and Democracy. And that’s when I realised, that no matter which side of the academic tracks you were on, it was the same journey for all of us.

Meiryum Ali

Meiryum Ali

A freshman at an ivy league school who writes a weekly national column in The Express Tribune called "Khayaban-e-Nowhere".

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Waleed chaudhry

    I am too an A1 student of arts~!
    Actually ill eschew the Farsi of physics mentioned above,however i do agree with the intertwined journey of all students which is visible in exams! The question thus lies that our interests cannot compete with the study(mostly the exam. procedure and learning)?Recommend

  • concerned omega


  • http://billaytoot.wordpress.com Belal
  • Maheen Rahman

    You’re quite correct in your observation. Fun post :)Recommend

  • faraz

    Newton’s concept of gravity has been proven wrong; Einstein’s time-space correctly explains gravity. Your syllabus is outdated. And what is the Second Law of Momentum?Recommend

  • zuhaib

    Ahhhh remind me of school days…but honestly is this only happened in physics? Nahhhh ….. =) Anyways really good writeup….Keep PostingRecommend

  • http://facebook.com/uzair.javed Uzair javed

    I can bet you are more of a liberal arts student than a physics-type-thing… And if you are REALLY into physics, nothing worse could and can happen to you ;pRecommend

  • parvez

    Fun read. Your good with words.Recommend

  • http://www.facebook.com/majid.u.rehman Majid Urrehman

    wow, great piece. Yeah I noticed too that arts subjects look more cool to A-Level students as compared to love and respect for sciences in junior classes.Recommend

  • Waqas Ahmed

    Good effort !!Recommend

  • Taimur Malik

    Very well written kiddo, but for accuracies sake I had to chime in – Liberal Arts, the mode of education developed at Oxbridge a few centuries ago and now the desired model of education followed by Yale, Harvard, Columbia et al is not opposed just humanities or social sciences. It wholly and fully includes the sciences and in fact actively encourages and mandates science as a part of the wholistic education model.

    The problem in the O & A-levels model in Pakistan is that we’ve segregated sciences and humanities, meaning that in most school you have to choose whether you’re on the “pre-engineering track”, “pre-med” or “business” track, which means that if somebody loves physics and hates chemistry they might have to drop science all together.

    The “Arts” in Liberal Arts is not arts as taught by NCA (no offense to them) but arts as Plato and the ancient Greeks wrote about it. I think that the Liberal Arts model, when rigorously applied is a brilliant model of opening the mind and contributing to developing the critical faculties of the mind!Recommend

  • Dr. Amyn Malik

    @ Faraz…Newtonian physics or classical physics holds true for macroscopic objects including general calculations regarding astronomical bodies and hence is still essential. Most of the objects on earth work on the principles of classical physics. Einstein’s relativity would provide the same results but the calculations would just be that much cumbersome. Hence classical physics has not gone out of the window as yet and will not for the forseeable future either. So it is still essential to study classical/Newtonian physics.

    @Maryam….all students everywhere are the same, agreed! Recommend

  • Ehtisham Rizvi

    In an MCQ paper where you are blank and dont know what to do, just answer all questions as “B” and you will pass the test. Try it :)Recommend

  • Ammar hasan

    Very good write up.. Keep it up . :) Recommend

  • AHR

    Nice to read and yes I can so identify with the empty feeling you get while attmepting to answer an A-Level exam paper!Recommend

  • faraz

    @Dr.Aymn Malik

    Students should be taught the correct concepts and principles of physics. Planets or objects on earth don’t obey the Newtonian laws! Only the calculations yield results which are close to Einstein’s approach. Newton wrongly believed that all bodies attracted all other bodies for some unknown reason. But Einstein explained that gravity is not a force but a curvature of the time-space curve. Newton’s laws depended on the existence of absolute space and absolute time that flows at the same rate for all observers; now we know it doesnt. And relativity exists at all speeds; even when you walk, the time dilates. When you measure distances between stars, the calculations aren’t based on Newtonian physics. Newton thought that light travels in straight lines as it has no mass; but he was wrong, light does bend.

    Classical physics should be taught so that students can understand how these principals were proven wrong by later physicists. Recommend

  • Majid Urrehman

    faraz r u a student of physics in karachi university?Recommend

  • Dr. Amyn Malik

    @ Faraz..I won’t diasgree with any of the arguments that you have presented above. But all the phenomenons that you have mentioned including relativity and bending of light that occurs in settings on earth (even for most general astronomical calculations) is so minuscule as to be negligible and hence classical physics leads to the correct answer. I agree relativity should also be taught to students but as far as calculations are concerned we should still follow classical physics rules. Why do more than we have we? Recommend

  • faraz

    @Majid Urrehman

    No, i am a doctor but i have few health issues so i dont work much. I just love physics, i study on my own and discuss with a friend of mine who is doing M.Phil in Physics. .

    @Dr. Aymn Malik

    You are surely right about the calculations. But relativity and quantum mechanics introduce the student to a whole new world. In FSc, i studied classic physics and found it interesting. But i recieved an absolute shock of my life when last year my friend told my about relativity and quantium mechanics. Relativity and Quantum mechanics take your understanding of physics to whole new level. Students should have some idea of these modern concepts; we call them modern although they were discoverd a century ago.

    Nodel Laureate Richard Feynman, the pioneer of Quantum Electrodynamics, said that “If you think you understand quantum physics you DON’T understand quantum physics at all. I can safely say that NOBODY understands quantum mechanics.” Recommend

  • Majid Urrehman

    Faraz, this is exactly what I was thinking. We physicists who are actually working in physics cannot ignore classical physics. Even today satellites are being controlled by classical physics. Einstein theory of gravity is useful in cosmology and adtronomical studies where relativity must be considered to get correct results. Recommend