Starcat 1 by my favourite artist

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Eureka! Or: What Archimedes and Physics Teachers Never Told Us about Displacement

Image courtesy of
We have all heard about Archimedes and his famous bathtime activities of splashing around, his wooden duck falling onto the bathroom floor with the overflow. This discovery helped us all understand why things float and why rubber ducks are better than wooden ones (fewer painful splinters and fewer cracked tiles). What we have never been told is why he was in the bath in the first place. For hygienic reasons, perhaps, but I reckon old Archie was there as a literal and figurative displacement activity.

Probably he should have been out shopping in the agora for that day’s dinner in Teskonotos or Asdakopoulos. But hey, it was a hot day, the streets were full of hoi polloi and Konon the barbarian slave was occupied clipping wifey’s toenails. Perhaps, even, he should have been drawing up plans for some new invention to help the contemporary Athenian’s life be that little bit more connected, more interactive, with easy-to-use eikons. Anyhow, to postpone the dreaded moment he decided to have a bath and pluck the hairs off his toes. He definitely was not worrying about the state of the Athenian Oeconomy and the overbearing demands of his Teutonic masters to reign in government spending. After all, the nothern barbarians were still running around naked and fighting Russel Crowe and his dog Wufus on the Danube.

Whatever. First he decided to have a nice, hot bath. No energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly showers for this lad. And in so doing he discovered displacement and - more importantly - the displacement activity.

I am a Master of Displacement. Sometimes, when not involved in displacement activities, I have the dubious honour of working for one of the, gulp, world’s top 500 universities. In fact, this post is a displacement activity in itself – and so far I have left it three times. I have convinced myself that it is imperative that I (wet) shave
I actually remember this type of washing
machine! Image courtesy of
and on the way back from the bathroom look at the bed to remind myself that, eventually, I will have to make it. Finally I had the unavoidable urge to check that the washing machine is still going round. I love watching our washing machine (good pronunciation practice that bit, I’ll have to use it in a class!) but I love the old ones better. They used more water and you could see lots of little bubbles and the clothes sloshing about, displacing the grey water.

Where was I? Oh yes, displacement. This year my commute is slightly longer than before and involves a one-hour drive to work. I therefore need to commence the leaving process at least two to three hours before starting work. Why? First I have to have a shower, get dressed, have a mighty powerful hot drinking coffee and get to the car. This obviously involves all of the above, but also might include re-arranging the stuff in the bathroom cabinet while looking for the deodorant I bought last week but will not need until the other, full, can has been exhausted.  Then I might also look for the sachet of sugar that a colleague gave me to put that into my coffee instead of using the jar of sugar in the kitchen. There then ensues a lengthy round of checking up on emails, Facebook, etc. Finally I get into the car and drive off.

My Ford is the best car in the world. It isn’t new, but has enough technology to keep me happily occupied while driving. I set the fuel consumption display to show how many miles are left before I need to fill up. This means driving at various speeds to see how this figure rises and falls, the occasional overtaking and scanning of the skies for traffic helicopters &c. &c. &c. Therefore, the one-hour drive might take 45 minutes in Rammstein listening mode or it might take 1 hour 20 minutes if I’m in end-of-the-month fuel-saving mode. It all depends.

Once at work, I have time to check my emails (usually publicity or official university emails that I delete unopened), chat to the admin. staff, flirt, have a coffee, peruse our own lending library, enjoy some banter with colleagues, read a blog or two, start listening to Radio 4 and then realise class is about to start.

The classes themselves are a goldmine of displacement activities: I observe the idiosyncrasies of the students and mentally note them for use at a later date; I play with the computer (obviously after freezing the image on the projector) and, of course, reach the day’s teaching objectives while trying to keep the students interested and amused. Although I say so myself, I usually manage all three quite successfully.

I sometimes wonder if, in fact, work is my real displacement activity. Classes over for the day, the whole process begins in reverse. I –

Sorry, must go. There’s a crooked picture on the wall facing me and I absolutley must straighten it before going for a wander around the local supermarket to see how much Bombay Sapphire gin costs this week – it’s a great indicator of the pound-euro exchange rate. You could try something similar at yours, using a bottle of Sherry or Rioja.

PS. Bombay Sapphire is currently €21.95 in Mercadona. The pound is on the up.

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