Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | June 4, 2011

More on Raspberry Pi, with a long quote from Feynman

This my post is provoked by a sad comment by Jacob George to the previous post:

I asking at school in the late 90s why we were no longer allowed to use school computers to program in our spare time. I was told “Someone else will be writing the software that you’ll be using”…

Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” is a catchy phrase coined by Ernst Haeckel, a 19th century German biologist and philosopher to mean that the development of an organism (ontogeny) expresses all the intermediate forms of its ancestors throughout evolution (phylogeny) [quote stolen from here].

Rephrasing Haeckel, a child development recapitulates the history of civilisation.

Raspberry Pi (on which I wrote earlier) is, in my opinion, an a example of retro-technology desperately needed for introduction into schools and children’s games.

I quote a relatively recent report on the state of physics by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson:

“Physics is in the grip of a long-term downward spiral. Not enough young people … take physics degrees, which means the pool from which to recruit teachers is not large enough. Many young people do not get sufficient opportunity to discover if they are good at physics and they are naturally disinclined to take what they believe is a difficult subject at A-level.”

As in the case of mathematics, one should not underestimate the role of wider cultural changes in the decline of physics education. Physicists of my generation frequently got their first exposure to real-life physics (and discovered that they are “good at physics”) by mending, fixing and repairing radios and various electrical appliances at their homes. Nowadays electrical goods are, as a rule, unreparable — they either work, or otherwise you have to through them away. Computers are the only noticeable exception from this rule – but not computer monitors! Also, the modular structure of computers turns their repair into a task of information technology, not physics.

At my time, things were very different. One of my classmates at the boarding school (in 1971-73), for example, at the age of 14 was repairing TV sets for all his family friends and neighbours. For that purpose, he converted his family’s TV set into an oscilloscope. It is important to clarify that the TV set did not lose its functionality, it still showed TV programmes — but when needed, it could be switched into the oscilloscope mode. I doubt that the same can be done with a modern plasma screen TV. I also have to add that I myself was hopeless in electronics — this is why I am a mathematician. And, of course, my classmate now is a professional research physicists, he is doing accelerators and elementary particles.

If we go even further back in time, Richard Feynman tells in his autobiographical essay He Fixes Radios by Thinking!  how he has started his glorious career in physics by fixing his neighbours’ radios. Feymnan explains:

Radio circuits were much easier to understand in those days because everything was out in the open. After you took the set apart (it was a big problem to find the right screws), you could see this was a resistor, that’s a condenser, here’s a this, there’s a that; they were all labeled. And if wax had been dripping from the condenser, it was too hot and you could tell that the condenser was burned out. If there was charcoal on one of the resistors you knew where the trouble was. Or, if you couldn’t tell what was the matter by looking at it, you’d test it with your voltmeter and see whether voltage was coming through. The sets were simple, the circuits were not complicated. The voltage on the grids was always about one and a half or two volts and the voltages on the plates were one hundred or two hundred, DC. So it wasn’t hard for me to fix a radio by understanding what was going on inside, noticing that something wasn’t working right, and fixing it.


  1. It occurred to me that the following idea may go a long way to what you would
    like to have, and is probably quite cheap to realise.

    A collection of programs-scripts that are (I) easy to modify in a functionally meaningful way appealing to a kid, yet (II) are complete, full source, run by an interpreter in a transparent virtual machine (by default with a debugger on, the interpretation of the scripting language is written in the same language etc.)

    (II) enables a kid to hack as you did in the old times; (I) makes a kid started.
    (I) is probably the main problem.

    This pretty much requires the underlying language to be either Python or Ruby.
    Probably Ruby is better: it is considered easier to read, fully OOP and they already
    somewhat of (I) philosophy (frameworks, scaffolding etc).
    It may also prove useful to be able to introduce new syntax elements; in Ruby
    it is quite easy.

    Functional programs can be very short; as an example,
    here is a series of funny videos teaching (an adult?) to build a basic twitter-site Zombies (on Yutube”, the site requires registration). These videos also have exercises,
    and you run code in the browser.

  2. @m: a very nice suggestion indeed.

    • Thanks. In fact, I was thinking about actually doing this. Would you be
      interested to get involved? For example, would you be interested
      in writing a grant application for this ?

      • It is interesting. More details? Please email me directly.

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