We finally made it to Birmingham to take part in the Tactile Collider experience! We’ve been wanting to squeeze it in for a long time, and it was definitely worth the wait.
if you don't know what the Tactile Collider team is up to, you can check out our NanoTip on their work. The giant model of LHC is fantastic. It's amazing to see the various magnet configurations and RF cavities for accelerating particles, and the binaural sounds illustrating cyclotron motion and acceleration is really awesome. The workshop facilitators were really keen and skilled to explain all about the nature of mass, particle structure, collisions, and many more aspects through tactile diagrams, 3D printed models, and probes.
Yet amongst the sights and sounds, there was the one often-overlooked aspect that stood out to us from our perspective: touch. There may be some bias here but in our opinion, once again, the power of tangible interaction in education stands out above the crowd as the most influential way to teach above other senses. People who know me know that I’ve been through the ups and downs of Feynman diagrams, equations of nuclear decay, and many more fruits of particle and nuclear physics. Years of detailed study where the concept of nuclear fission is basic. You see animations, descriptions, and images as a student over and over again. You know how the big blobs of stuff split up into smaller chunks, leaving some energy behind.
But it wasn’t until these particular, precious few seconds that I fully understood the meaning of strong and weak nuclear forces — the forces that exist on a very small radial scale, keeping matter together, ensuring that two protons in an atom don’t repulse each other. No matter how many ways you visually represent these forces, they are something that happens not with light but with feeling. Why study pictures of people hugging if you want to feel a warm embrace? Why study force diagrams if you want to know what pulling two magnets apart feels like?
The way it was represented by the Tactile Collider team is simply a handful of magnetic, metal balls stuck together into some more or less spherical configurations. The students taking part, with me tagging along, passed around the probe. It was fragile; you could easily peel of one or two outer atoms if you were not careful, as these were further from the nucleus and therefore binding less. However, when closer to the middle, as the magnetic force increased, you really had to put some effort in to separate some of the metal spheres. It was just such an intuitive tool, a tangible tool, that made the conceptual model click then and there. A small probe defeated years of lectures, books, slideshows, animations your eyes didn’t see.
So when you think you know something, it might be true — but for it to truly click, and help create the right conceptual models, tangible interactions and interfaces are beyond imagination.