Stories from physics booklet 1: Weird units and wonderful measures

The story of physics is intertwined with the stories of people. We are delighted to be able to share this collection of amazing, amusing and enlightening stories from Richard Brock, a former physics teacher and currently researching physics education at Kings' College London. The stories will be of interest to any teacher and are ready to use with students to bring the discipline alive and illustrate its reliance on human ingenuity and frailty.

This booklet is the first in a series and shows how physics has developed from a desire to find define and measure things that can be quantified – and then look for ways of relating them. 

Unusual units

Message from the author

"I can still vividly recall some of the stories I was told by my physics teachers. I remember hearing about Tycho Brahe’s pet elk, his metallic false nose and Newton’s many eccentricities. When I became a teacher, I would share these stories with my classes and began to collect more stories, both from talking to teachers and from my reading. Although I am no longer a school teacher, I now have a collection of hundreds of stories about physics and I am still finding new ones.

"I am delighted to be working with the Institute of Physics to share these stories more widely with teachers who can, in turn, share them with their classes. Together we are creating a series of booklets which is intended to act as a catalogue of stories for teaching physics.

"The history of science, and contemporary research, are full of engaging stories that are rich in humanity. Adding engaging stories which capture the imagination to physics lesson can emphasise the human side of the subject and promote students’ engagement with conceptual content.

"In the words of educational researcher Fritz Kubli, stories can ‘fill voiceless scientific structures with life and enrich physics teaching.’
It is quite common for students to begin learning about physics by being introduced to units. Whilst knowledge of units is important for understanding physics, students can find teaching about measurement abstract and unexciting.

"This first volume contains a series of stories about units and the ways in which they have been used. So, let me tell you some stories about physics…"

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