Tag Archives: education

BWYA Graduation Speech – May 2009


In the spring of 2009, I had the honor of being asked to give the graduation speech at the Beijing World Youth Academy, where I taught physics from 2007 to 2009. It is (or was at the time) their tradition to ask one of the departing teachers to be the main speaker at the ceremony. They probably asked other people first, but no one else was willing, as we were all busy with our end-of-the-year insanity. And so they turned to me.

With my characteristic modesty, I declare that I did a pretty good job coming up with a simple and inspiring message. Here it is:

BWYA Graduation Speech 2009 – Olen Rambow

A Simple Introduction to Special Relativity


Think Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity is beyond you? Think again.

It sounds intimidating. But what most people don’t realize is that it only requires a knowledge of the Pythagorean theorem, the definition of velocity (or really just speed, in the sense of distance divided by time), some basic algebra, and a willingness to embrace an unintuitive new understanding of time (and distance).

Here’s a simple introduction that I wrote for my 9th and 10th grade students at Village High School in May of 2010:


Feel free to share it, copy it, distribute it, shred it, or burn it.

Okay, I admit that there’s actually a lot more to Special Relativity than what’s discussed in this little paper. The first three inescapable conclusions that emerge from the theory are that (1) time slows down in a moving reference frame (“time dilation”); (2) moving objects are shortened (“length contraction”); and (3) events that are simultaneous in one reference frame occur at different times in other reference frames. What’s hard to wrap your mind around is that these effects are not just matters of perception. Rather, the times and lengths actually change.

Those three effects are only the beginning, though. From them can be derived all sorts of other fascinating phenomena. Velocities, energies, momenta, and forces also change from one reference frame to another. The most amazing thing about Special Relativity, in my opinion, is the fact that the magnetic force is actually just a consequence of these time and length transformations.* One could say that the magnetic force isn’t even a real force. It’s an effect that arises as a consequence of relativity whenever an electric charge moves. (That’s why the “electromagnetic force” is considered to be just one force.) In fact, you can set up a situation in which, from the point of view of one person who’s sitting still, there’s a magnetic field; but from the point of view of another person who’s moving in a certain way, there is no magnetic field. It all depends on your point of view.

It’s tempting to go one step further and draw parallels between the physical theory of relativity and various philosophical ideas — relativism in ethics, culture, and religion, for example. It seems like there’s a scientific basis for saying that ideas that are right from one point of view might be wrong in another, and vice versa. But in fact, such thinking is contrary to the very heart of special relativity. The physical theory is built on the following two axioms: (1) The speed of light is always exactly the same in any reference frame; and (2) The laws of physics are always exactly the same in any reference frame. Thus, special relativity is actually a theory of absolutes. In fact, Einstein himself wanted to call it “Invariance Theory.”** It was other people who gave it the name “Relativity.”

* Haskell, Richard. “Special Relativity and Maxwell’s Equations.”

** Isaacson, Walter. Einstein: His Life and Universe.

Preparing Students for Real Life


The Houston Chronicle published an article about a new plan to train students, especially in low-income areas, for specific careers. The skills listed in the article are “process technology” (in “chemical, refining, and manufacturing careers”), “electronic engineering,” “network and computer administration,” “logistics and global supply,” and “pharmacy technology.”

Now this is what I’m talking about. If executed well, programs like this could have a significant positive impact on our education system and society in general. This is right in line with some of my proposals in my education essay, namely:

  1. Make the curriculum more practical.
  2. Encourage early specialization.
  3. Reduce the emphasis on “preparation for college.”
  4. Develop trade schools.

The most important thing here is that we give kids something constructive to do. If we give them practical skills and enable them to start working, kids who otherwise might have felt worthless and directionless and turned to gangs and drugs would instead feel like contributing members of society who have some say. That’s the kind of change that will make America a better place to live in.

I hope this program receives the support it needs in order to have a chance at success.

Here’s a link to the article in the Chronicle:

HISD looking to help graduates land jobs

An Interesting Physics Problem: The Airport Walkway


In December 2008, one of my favorite students emailed me an interesting physics problem:

Suppose you’re in an airport and you need to get from point A to point B. For part of the way, there’s a moving walkway; the rest of the way, there isn’t. You walk at your normal speed, both on the moving walkway and on the floor. The questions are:

1. If you have to stop to tie your shoe, should you do it on the floor or on the walkway? (Your goal is to make the trip in as short a time as possible.)

2. If you can run for a short, fixed period of time, do you save more time by running on the walkway or on the floor?

3. How do the answers to (1) and (2) change if you take special relativity into account?

I wrote up a solution, which I’m very proud of. Here it is:

Airport Walkway Problem

Scientific Writing for Chinese Researchers

Book Cover

Pardon my Chinese, but . . .

从2005年到2007年,我在中科院半导体所从事论文编辑和英语教学的职业。 在这期间,我为想要在国际期刊上发表论文的在校研究生们编辑过好几百篇的论文。 在我编辑这些论文的同时,我也记录下了母语为中文的人的论文中最常出现的英语语法错误。等到我结束在半导体所任教时,我根据这些观察和记录编写了一本书, 名为 Scientific Writing for Chinese Researchers.

写 完这本书的很长时间内,我都不太愿意在美国公开和出版这本书。因为我认为它只适合中国研究生。但是,最近我又重新读了一遍这本书,并在读过之后改变了我的 想法。其实书中有很多写作规则适合任何想要写论文的人。其中更适合中国学生的部分也会对在美国的中国留学生很有帮助。


Okay, now here’s everything in English:

From 2005 to 2007, I worked as an editor and English teacher at the Institute of Semiconductors, which is a branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. During that time, I edited hundreds upon hundreds of papers that were written by Chinese graduate students who wanted to have their work published in international journals. As I corrected their writing, I kept track of the most common errors that native Chinese speakers make when they write in English, and at the end of my time there I compiled all of my observations into a book: Scientific Writing for Chinese Researchers.

For a long time, I was reluctant to share this with people in America because I felt that the book was only appropriate for graduate students in China. I recently went back and read through it, though, and I’ve changed my mind. Many of the principles are appropriate for anyone who wants to write a paper, and the parts that are specifically for Chinese students will probably be very useful to Chinese graduate students here in America.

The book is available here.

What’s Needed for Effective Education Reform?

After spending four years teaching high school math and physics, I am now entering graduate school to pursue research in applied physics. I wanted to write down my thoughts on teaching and, in particular, on the state of our education system, while the experience was still fresh in my mind. I did so back in June, and I am now ready to post the finished product online. It ended up being a 45-page essay. It’s more for myself than for anyone else, but I think some people will find it interesting. So here it is (as a PDF):

What’s Needed for Effective Education Reform?

In the essay, I make some unconventional proposals, including:

  • doing away with grades entirely
  • doing away with grade levels entirely
  • doing away with the high school diploma entirely
  • encouraging early specialization
  • developing a culture of respect for teachers
  • disciplining students in more effective ways