Not Saussure

December 4, 2006

Examination time

Filed under: Uncategorized — notsaussure @ 1:40 am

For no particular reason, other than that they amused me, a couple of apparently apocryphal examination stories.

The following concerns a question in a physics degree exam at the University of Copenhagen:

“Describe how to determine the height of a skyscraper with a barometer.”

One student replied:

“You tie a long piece of string to the neck of the barometer, then lower the barometer from the roof of the skyscraper to the ground. The length of the string plus the length of the barometer will equal the height of the building.”

This highly original answer so incensed the examiner that the student was failed immediately. The student appealed on the grounds that his answer was indisputably correct, and the university appointed an independent arbiter to decide the case.

The arbiter judged that the answer was indeed correct, but did not display any noticeable knowledge of physics. To resolve the problem it was decided to call the student in and allow him six minutes in which to provide a verbal answer that showed at least a minimal familiarity with the basic principles of physics.

For five minutes the student sat in silence, forehead creased in thought. The arbiter reminded him that time was running out, to which the student replied that he had several extremely relevant answers, but couldn’t make up his mind which to use. On being advised to hurry up the student replied as follows:

“Firstly, you could take the barometer up to the roof of the skyscraper, drop it over the edge, and measure the time it takes to reach the ground. The height of the building can then be worked out from the formula H = 0.5g x t squared. But bad luck on the barometer.”

“Or if the sun is shining you could measure the height of the barometer, then set it on end and measure the length of its shadow. Then you measure the length of the skyscraper’s shadow, and thereafter it is a simple matter of proportional arithmetic to work out the height of the skyscraper.”

“But if you wanted to be highly scientific about it, you could tie a short piece of string to the barometer and swing it like a pendulum, first at ground level and then on the roof of the skyscraper. The height is worked out by the difference in the gravitational restoring force T =2 pi sqr root (l /g).”

“Or if the skyscraper has an outside emergency staircase, it would be easier to walk up it and mark off the height of the skyscraper in barometer lengths, then add them up.”

“If you merely wanted to be boring and orthodox about it, of course, you could use the barometer to measure the air pressure on the roof of the skyscraper and on the ground, and convert the difference in millibars into feet to give the height of the building.”

“But since we are constantly being exhorted to exercise independence of mind and apply scientific methods, undoubtedly the best way would be to knock on the janitor’s door and say to him ‘If you would like a nice new barometer, I will give you this one if you tell me the height of this skyscraper’.”

And this one concerns a particularly tricky multiple choice test:

Two Engineering students left Champaign Friday afternoon for a weekend in Chicago. They hadn’t been home for weeks and there was a party Saturday night they did not want to miss. The plan was to drive back Sunday afternoon so that they would have time to study for their MidTerm exam Monday morning. (The unwritten Undergraduate law book at UI states that anyone who begins studying more than twelve hours before the exam is totally uncool.)

The party was indeed worth coming home for and, needless to say, Monday morning found them still sacked out on the livingroom floor in a house in the Chicago suburbs. So much for the MidTerm.

They arrived in Champaign early Monday afternoon and immediately went to see their Engineering Professor. The students explained that they had been in Chicago at a family occasion and had risen at the ungodly hour of four to drive back to Champaign. They would have been in plenty of time for the MidTerm were it not for that miserable flat tire half way between Kankakee and Champaign.

The professor was sympathetic and agreed that the two could write a make up exam first thing Tuesday morning.

Tuesday morning the Professor placed one student at the TA’s desk in his office and one student two doors down in the office of an absent colleague.

The first question – worth 20% – was a standard Engineering question. Neither student had overmuch difficulty with it.

The second question – worth 30% – was a slightly more complex question, but certainly answerable.

The third question – worth 50% – asked “Which tire was flat?”


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