Star Turn: Robert Taylor

January 12, 2001

Sue Law meets a charismatic lecturer who enlivens relativity with doses of Star Trek .

Complex equations and abstract concepts may not sound the most promising material for a lively lecture. But sketches of Star Trek Klingons, and web animations of spaceships are all part of the visual, interactive style which has won rave reviews from students of Oxford physics lecturer Robert Taylor.

A charismatic Welshman who arrived at Oxford more than 20 years ago as an undergraduate and never left, he says television has shortened students' attention span so teachers have to work harder to get their message over.

"Physics is a particularly hard subject to get across as there are so many dry equations. It is important that you don't just drone on for an hour as they wouldn't take anything in. I try to bring to life abstract concepts by concrete examples. I am quite an extrovert and it is good fun making my lectures entertaining," says Dr Taylor.

His relaxed, chatty approach is highly popular with students, whose comments on course evaluations have included "Wow!", "Brilliant" and "That was fun" - not what you would expect from a demanding series of lectures on special relativity.

Last year he experimented with a new, dynamic teaching style, giving out detailed lecture notes in advance so students could concentrate on absorbing concepts without worrying about note-taking. He ends one session on Einstein by unbuttoning his shirt to reveal a T-Shirt with the slogan "Albert says e=mc2". "Relativity is counter-intuitive to common-sense. As the human mind works on pictures, I use them a lot to help the learning process. I want to instil the flavour of the subject during a lecture and that doesn't happen if they are scribbling down equations," he says.

Oxford's new £2 million Martin Wood lecture theatre is the venue for this term's fifth undergraduate lecture in special relativity. Dr Taylor opens by posing a problem: "The prime minister plans a quiet cabinet meeting at a remote location, and books a conference on a planet circling a star ten light years from earth." Five statements are then put to the class which need true or false answers. Laughter and a show of hands, and most of the 180 students know the first statement - "The PM claims that with a fast enough spaceship the journey could take one hour" - is true.

"The cabinet would be travelling at the speed of light but they would be squashed flat," Dr Taylor jokes before moving on to work through a complex series of equations to find relative velocities. After six blackboard frames of chalked equations some of the class are looking dazed and there are a few undisguised yawns. Suddenly everyone perks up, as the auditorium is filled with the sounds of a train approaching, then passing a station. It leads in to a discussion on the Doppler Effect, and it certainly regains the students' attention.

Finally Dr Taylor brings up a live web page that shows how to build a spaceship, and discusses how long it would take to travel to different planets. Everyone is absorbed, fascinated to hear that an ice shield would be the best way to prevent photon-drag on the spaceship.

"How would space appear as you travelled in the spaceship?" he asks. "Imagine you are in a train and it is raining. As the train moves the rain slants, and eventually you get very steep rain. The same happens to light, so Star Trek got it completely wrong. What we should see as the Enterprise travels through space is the collapse of the star field into a cone."

As they leave the lecture, a group of students gathers round asking questions and continuing the debate. They are full of praise for Dr Taylor's approach to a potentially difficult subject. "He has a much more dynamic teaching style than other lecturers," says one, while another adds:

"I like the way he always sends you out with something to think about."

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