Category Archives: Physics

Jonathan Burn – How machines learn: writing a phone app to recognise birdsong

Jonathan Burn (OC) works in merchant bank IT and marketing. He is, in addition, a funk musician and mathematician, was a primary school teacher, and did a degree in Economics at the LSE in his own time for fun. He also has a masters in Artificial Intelligence from Imperial.
With an engaging and clear set of slides, Jon took us carefully through what sound is, how computers store the information contained in sounds, and how they can be set up to learn the best ways of identifying new sounds. This is done mainly through the ‘random forest’ technique: a way of generating questions to ask about a new sound which most accurately and efficiently put it into the right group (e.g. robin or blackbird).

Mr Maingot: Bio-electricity, auras and drama

On the 16th of May Mr Maingot, Chigwell School’s head of drama, gave a thought-provoking presentation on the subjects of bio-electricity, auras and drama. At first, the functioning of neurons in the brain was explained, followed by an in-depth explanation of how using peripheral vision we can notice a magnetic field around a person, commonly known as their aura. After a demonstration that involved Mr Maingot connecting his index fingers and talking us through the process, we were given time to use our eyesight differently than we do on a regular basis and hopefully notice our own, individual auras. Mr Maingot ended the magical, yet scientific Williams Project by sharing his own personal experiences with colourful auras which he was lucky to observe while working with actors in drama plays. The audience was amazed and seemed determined to use Mr Maingot’s advice and start regularly practising their aura-seeing abilities.

Halina Ravensdale

Peter Walling and Jagveen Tyndall: Consciousness – scientific and mystical approaches

On Tuesday, 2nd December 2014, Peter Walling and Jagveen Tyndall (both Old Chigwellians) visited the Williams Project to give the final talk of the term. They both gave highly interesting talks on consciousness, though both talks were very different. Continue reading

Howard and Mitchell Essay Prize Presentations and Dinner

At a packed meeting in the Library this year’s winners gave presentations on their essays.

Stuart Innes (‘Have attitudes towards mental health really changed?’) gave a clear historical summary of how societies have responded to and attempted to treat mental illness, framed within a powerful argument for a mixture of approaches. He was insistent that a reductively “scientific”, drug-based, approach was not the answer, but that counselling and therapy had central roles: humans have evolved with the ability to share with others their feelings and thoughts, and we should use this as a strength.

Rachel Maton (‘Why did 16th– and 17th-century Europe experience widespread witchcraft hysteria, and a subsequent peak in witch-hunts and trials?’) discussed in detail the many different theories which have been proposed to explain why numbers of trials increased in an age of supposed rationalism. These ranged from scapegoating and feminism to the invention of the printing press. She concluded with a balanced evaluation, arguing that it was due to a number of factors coming together; she also downplayed the contribution of the feminist argument (that the suppression of witches was allied to an expression of male power): even in England a good quarter of all those condemned were male, and in Russia and Estonia the vast majority were men.

Xiaoxuan Liu (‘Einstein’s special theory of relativity: a general explanation for its formation’) gave a humorous and in-depth explanation of Einstein’s theory, using an alternative method for deriving E=mc^2 than the one she had used in her original essay. She argued that while many people find the dramatic effects of relativity (e.g. time dilation, changes in mass) the most appealing aspects, she preferred the raw beauty of its mathematics.

All three speakers were extremely impressive – they were clear, authoritative and engaging; all were, in short, easy to listen to, despite the (each for different reasons) challenging nature of what they were talking about. They could also deal with questions with confidence and charm.

After a splendid formal dinner Tim Morrison (OC and former Howard Essay Winner, now Head of Classics at Oundle School) introduced most of us to Thales, the first Greek philosopher, and as such the first recorded person in Western Europe to question for himself accepted explanations for how the world worked. Despite being perfectly able to use his intelligence to make money (one year he predicted a bumper olive crop and bought up all the presses), he thought it more interesting and important to study the heavens and think for himself about the world – just the sort of inspirational figure needed by this year’s LVI as they embark on their own Howard & Mitchell essays.

Roger Noble: The Universe from Λ to Ω

Dr Roger Noble from the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics came and spoke to us about the biggest possible questions: cosmology, the big bang, relativity, how we learnt that the universe is expanding, whether it will continue to do so or start imploding under its own gravity, and how we have tried to confirm our hunch that the cosmological constant (lambda (Λ)) is exactly 1 – the value required to make the universe continue to expand, but only just. Dr Noble’s talk was really clear, carefully paced, and eye-opening.

Gilles Arnoux and Tom Farley: Nuclear Fusion

Dr Gilles Arnoux and Tom Farley visited Chigwell. Both work at the CCFE – the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, in Oxfordshire. Dr Arnoux explained the differences between nuclear fission (how ‘ordinary’ nuclear reactors work, by splitting atoms) and nuclear fusion (how stars like the sun produce energy, by fusing two hydrogen atoms into one helium atom). Nuclear fusion has huge potential, as the fuel is almost limitless (sea water), the waste products are much safer, and there is no risk of a Fukushima-style meltdown. We learnt in detail how the Culham reactor was designed and built, with a complex system of magnets to keep the incredibly hot plasma away from the sides, and how a much bigger reactor is being built in France. His talks were followed by very interesting question-and-answer sessions.

CERN and Science spending

David Jones, Shezad Khan and Andrew Liddell from our MVI gave an excellent talk to the remv WP on what the new Large Hadron Collider is seeking to achieve. Mr Wilson then led a discussion on whether the huge amounts of money needed for this pure research were justified, given the immediate problems of hunger and disease in the world. WP members were then asked to prepare group responses to these questions.

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