An Education in Physics: Tribute to Shaun Collins

My  memories of Shaun from Culverhay school are all about Physics.

Me, Sean Morrison, Shaun Collins and Alex Escott sat on the back row, admittedly messing about and having a good laugh, Physics was my favourite class, after Art. Shaun was an incredibly funny person, the four of us would often be in tears of laughter at the back, I’m still not sure how we got away with it.

Throughout the year, when physics class was getting too boring for us, Shaun’s party trick was to decide who’s turn it was out of the four of us to ask Mr Groves, “Excuse me sir, but can you please explain what a theory is to us again? Are theories facts? Does it mean they are real? Why’s it called a theory? Are theories ever wrong?”

Hearing this question, the whole class would put down their pens, stop whatever work they were doing, and look towards Mr Groves.

Feeling inspired by the question, (even though he’d been asked it numerous times by the same four pupils), Mr Groves would deliver a full post-graduate level talk to a class of 14 – 15 years olds about the philosophy of the scientific method, and about how theory was the term for findings which have been tested and held up as true, though they could be challenged and replaced by new theories in the development of scientific discovery, and about how theories can be considered as good as true until you can prove it otherwise…..etc….

Mid-flow of his inspired lecture, the bell would ring, everyone rushing towards the door. Shaun, Sean, Alex and me would look at each other grinning.  Another easy lesson not having to do much work, all we had to do was listen. It happened every time.

Shaun and I lost touch after we left school back in ’88, seeing each other maybe only a handful to times, but hearing of his death I had to attend his funeral to pay my respects.  Hearing the eulogies today in church it all made sense – his love of physics, mathematics, philosophy, conspiracy theories, and also his mischievous and sharp sense of humour.  This is easily describing Shaun during his school days, let alone what he was like later in life.  I now teach, working in education as a lecturer at a university, and I look back at what Shaun did in physics as an act of genius. Shaun’s orchestrated question to Mr Groves showed an intelligence and sophistication beyond his years.  He knew how it would be bait to Mr Groves, (who it has to be said, full respect is due for treating us as intelligent human beings and indulging our question with a full intelligent answer).  Importantly, Shaun also knew the question in the first place! (This was no ordinary prank of a 14 year old boy in a comprehensive working class boys school.)

I have no doubt today that these unwitting lectures by Mr Groves were more interesting, and taught us much more, than if he stuck to his original lesson plan.  Teaching at a university I hear the word theory almost every day, and I often think back to these physics lessons and Shaun’s interventions. During writing up my PhD (some 21 years later), the sentiments of Mr Groves often rang in my ears when I was writing about theory in relation to the scientific method and the relationship between science and arts. Memories of Mr Groves words provided a deep rooted understanding I could draw on, (built upon over later years of study, though remaining the foundation understanding).  Shaun, aged 14, provided the  inspiration that allowed Mr Groves his stage.

So thanks Shaun.  Thanks for the laughter. Thanks for the inspiration.  Thanks for the lessons. 

I’d never heard this song before today when it was played in the church. It’s a lovely song, very fitting.  I haven’t seen you for years Shaun, but you are already missed.

Your friend and pupil,

Dr. Shawn Sobers

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