James Bond: A new method of explaining experimental physics

  • HT Correspondent, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Apr 08, 2015 17:47 IST

When it was released in 1995, GoldenEye had to impress James Bond fans with some spectacular action since it marked the British secret agent’s return to the silver screen after six years — and it did not disappoint. Fans watched it with lot of admiration as Pierce Brosnan, playing Bond, escaped from a Soviet chemical weapons facility, chased an aircraft, followed it as it toppled over a cliff and actually caught up with it while falling.

Two stunts were combined to make the scene look realistic: one stunt performer rode a motorcycle to the edge of the cliff and jumped and another one dived after the plane. Those who think such acts cannot be emulated have to update their knowledge of physics and understand that it’s not actually impossible. At least that’s what Professor Metin Tolan will tell you. The prorector (for research and teaching) for TU Dortmund University, Germany, has a PhD degree in experimental physics. He likes to, ‘for fun,’ give lectures on subjects that link physics to James Bond movies. You’ll find laws of physics everywhere if you look close enough, he says. Managing a “GoldenEye free fall” depends on air resistance (one of the laws of physics states that all objects — regardless of their mass — free fall with the same acceleration). The size of the particles in his Vodka-Martini also indicates why Bond wants his preferred drink ‘shaken and not stirred.’ Actually, there are many such things which makes physics not all that difficult to understand.

A man whose main areas of interest are the use of X-rays to study the interface behaviour of polymers, biomaterials, liquids and other “soft materials,” Professor Tolan has watched “every single James Bond movie more than 20 times.” Also a Star Trek fan, his love affair with physics started when he, as a child, started asking his mother why everyone believed that the earth was orbiting the sun while it looked as if exactly the opposite were true. “My mother did not know the answer but she told me that physicists know such things. From that moment I got interested in the subject,” he says.

It’s easy to make people develop an interest in science says this recipient of the Communicator’s Award 2013 conferred by the German Research Foundation, DFG. It is bestowed on researchers who have communicated their scientific findings to a wide general audience and is aimed at promoting dialogues between the scientific community and the public. “In Germany, more and more scientists try to explain science to the general public. In Dortmund, for instance, we have a series called ‘Saturday Morning Physics’ where approximately 500 to 800 people show up on Saturday mornings to listen to talks of physics professors who explain their topics in simple words. Their response shows me that some of them have fallen in love with physics afterwards,” adds Tolan.

Face to face with Metin Tolan, experimental physicist and prorector of academic affairs at Technical University of Dortmund, Germany

‘Titanic is a perfect example of thermodynamics’

What is experimental physics?
Experimental physics means doing experiments and explaining them with theory and mathematics. We develop new theories using it.

Can movies be used to experiment and explain theories in experimental physics?
Movies can be analysed in this way — by physics. In a better context, these could be used to make people get interested in physics. Through the movie examples, I don’t present cutting edge science theories but these modes of entertainment can attract people to the subject. Even when I am teaching at my university, I restrain from using text book examples and use movies instead. It seems to work well with the students. This is also how I started presenting public talks on physics theories, using movies as examples.

How important is it to experiment with teaching methods to make the subject interesting for students?
A physics teacher should try and include more examples from daily life, rather than calculating artificial examples which are of no interest. Physics has a lot to do with the incidents going around us. We can explain why the sky is blue in the mornings and red in the evenings. If we take the Bond movies alone, I have covered topics ranging from classical mechanics, electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, and relativity. You can literally teach each topic by just deriving examples from movies. For instance, the movie Titanic is a perfect example of thermodynamics as we can explain the working of steam engine in a ship. These examples garner much more interest from students than boring text book instances as nobody cares about random numbers and equations. Such entertaining examples have a stronger retention capability.

Public understanding of physics is very important. Not only the students, we aim to explain physics to parents and grandparents as well so that they can get their children interested in the subject.

What is your impression of the research scene in India?
The equipment that physicists use here is quite advanced and the research scene is very impressive. This is strange that I did not know this before through publications. Hence, I feel science communication is not that developed here in the country. It must come from the professors. They need to have interests outside the subject to relate and make the subject more interesting. Professors need to reach the public through their lectures.

(As told to Antara Sengupta)

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