Interview: Teachers should be more interested in the joys and woes of their students, says Professor Černohorský

Professor Černohorsky, who celebrated his 95th birthday last year, has spent a significant part of his life with Masaryk University. We learn how he has taught students that the unique physical-historical-linguistic curiosity that is Newton’s Latin formulation of the principles of inertia (both translational and rotational) has been consistently misrepresented since its first translation (1729), and how Masaryk is currently the only university where Newton’s First Law is interpreted correctly.

3 Apr 2019 Martin Černohorský a David Baláš

Profesor Martin Černohorský během jednoho z rozhovorů, které s ním vedl doktor Paul Burnett, historik z Kalifornské univerzity v Berkeley. Brno, Rektorát Masarykovy univerzity, 8. července 2018. Foto Marie Fojtíková.

How do you remember the time of the First Republic in which you grew up?

This is really three answers. My childhood in the First Republic covered three very different periods. At preschool age, the child's mind does not perceive the specificity of existence in a six-member, single-parent family dependent on the mother’s earnings. Worth mentioning is perhaps just one incident, that is well embedded in my memory. I once found some glass in the nursery yard, which, when exposed to the sun, amazed me by producing a beautiful rainbow image. I joyfully ran with my "invention" to see the teacher, but she did not share my joy and, with the words "you will spoil your eyes!" threw the glass into the canal, and my first joyful encounter with physics in the form of decomposition of light by a prism ended bleakly.

I have a set of school reports from five different elementary schools that I attended because of the way home stays alternated with stays in three children's institutions, all different in nature. Even at that age, a simple registration of the world and the life in it predominated, with only isolated indications of more serious reflection on facts or actions beyond those that tend not to attract special attention in schoolchildren.

A conscious perception of the existence of the First Republic only began with my entry into grammar school. Right from the first year, I was making money from giving extra classes, with the number of lessons given growing significantly from the second year. I got to know dozens of families at different social levels and with different opinions. It was a time of intensifying dictatorship in Mussolini's Italy, along with his intervention in Abyssinia, and, above all, manifestations of ‘Drang nach Osten’ (“drive toward the East!”) in the politics of Hitler’s Germany. In our country, Beneš had replaced Masaryk, a collection was held to defend the Republic and the poem “Remember the murky morning, my child!”, written to commemorate the death of TGM (T.G. Masaryk), was written into the collective memory. And then, after the annexation of Austria in March 1938, Lord Runciman’s unfortunate mission, in September 1938 there was determined mobilisation in the spirit of Masaryk (“Let us sit!”), the seizure of the Sudetenland and then, after six months, the second total occupation of the then truncated Czechoslovakia. The German Army entered smoothly with “Rechts fahren! Rechts fahren!” (“Drive right!”) blaring from the radio and no thought of resistance (it occurred only in Frýdek-Místek), followed by the establishment of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (Protectorate Böhmen-Mähren). With that, twenty years of independence and successful state-building ended.

When you were fifteen, and slowly approaching the time when you were to enter college, German troops invaded the then Czechoslovakia. As a result, Masaryk University was closed in November 1939. How did you bear the difficult situation of having to to postpone your university studies for several years, and what did you do then?

Ah yes, the end of the First Republic after just twenty year’s existence (I recall Masaryk’s clairvoyant “If we keep the Republic for twenty years, we will keep it forever!”). With the disastrous events of 1938 and 1939, I reached the age of fifteen. During the demonstrations of October 1939, the medic Jan Opletal was fatally shot and his funeral became another great demonstration. Germany’s answer was the execution of the student management and the closure of Czech universities “for three years”, though they actually did not open again until November 1942. I was among those high school graduates who did not attend a state secondary technical school; instead, I enrolled in a private business school. Developments during the Battle of Stalingrad indicated an early surrender of the encircled German army, with optimistic prospects for a possible early end to the war by the defeat of Germany. However, this did not happen until two and a half years later; though even then, some Germans were obviously still hoping for a turnaround as they believed that the “Leader had a secret weapon”. It was especially believed by those who knew something about Hahn and Strassmann’s discovery of atomic fission. In this context, it is worth noting the little-known fact that Georg Placzek, a native of Brno, had an extremely important part to play in the early success of the Manhattan project (development of the atomic bomb).

At that time, my family situation (and life in general) was rather difficult and, after consulting with my high school class professors, I applied to study in Germany. From January 1943 to March 1945, I was enrolled in mathematics and physics at the Technical University in Darmstadt. This allowed me to fulfil my dream of continuing the necessary contributions to the family budget and still having frequent stays at home. It was also helpful that I was taken on as an assistant scientist at Professor Alwin Walther’s initiative at his Institute for Practical Mathematics. When the Americans occupied Darmstadt at the end of March 1945, I offered my services as an interpreter to the management of the military barracks, which housed hundreds of people of different nationalities. Because of this, I did not go home immediately but finally left in June with the last transport of Czech returnees.

After the war, you finally got the chance to study mathematics and physics. Were you able to choose the subjects you liked, or were they taught according to a single template?

According to the nationally valid unified study program for both teaching and vocational studies, progress was only made from the academic year 1954/55. The program was prepared by the ‘Commission for Reform of Philosophical and Natural Sciences Faculties, which was one of the committees of the ‘State Committee for Higher Education Institutions’ established in 1948. In the first post-war decade, just as in the First Republic, the faculties of philosophy and science only prepared teachers for secondary schools with specified two-subject combinations (e.g. Czech and history, Czech and Physics, etc.). At that time, we could write down anything; though, of course, in such a way as fulfil the necessary requirements for admission to the state exams.

On the initiative of my grammar school physics professor and my class professor Rostislav Košťál (already a pre-war external scientist at the Institute of Experimental Physics at the Faculty of Science, Masaryk University), I became a scientific assistant at the Institute in June 1945. In addition to practicing, preparing and performing demonstrations and experiments in the lectures of the Institute Director Professor Josef Zahradníček, Associate Professor Rostislav Košťál and Assistant Antonín Čížek, I was also in charge of administration (the institutes did not have a secretary at the time). By organising the Institute archives, I became acquainted with the history of Masaryk University from the very beginning, including repeated unsuccessful efforts to build the campus, from the minutes of the Professor’s meetings. The Institute of Experimental Physics had five employees in all, while the Institute of Theoretical Physics (Director Professor Bohuslav Hostinský) had four. The Ministry subsequently approved an assistant in the experimental physics institute due to the heavy workload resulting from the enrolment of students from seven graduation years (1939-1945). Entrance exams were not required for enrolment at that time, the basic Grammar school report being sufficient.

During the summer of 1945, I attended a six-week course organised for secondary school graduates by the ‘Teaching Institute’ as a person interested in teacher training. The course ended with a school-leaving examination. Graduates were supposed to be teachers at elementary schools, which had a shortage of teachers. During the 1945/46 academic year, I studied externally, helping as Deputy Director and supervisor in the boy’s section of the Children’s Institute in Předklášteří near Tišnov at the request of the Director, the local supervisor having accepted a leading management position in the border area. Naturally, this was not convenient as far as my full-time studies were concerned; however, as a former ‘inmate’, I was happy to comply as I felt I owed something to the institute. Similarly, in 1949, before I finished my studies (I passed the second state examination in 1950 and my Doctorate in 1952), I helped for six-months as an instructor preparing workers for university studies.

How did the exams take place and what was the exam period?

Secondary school teaching at the philosophical and natural sciences faculties was completed by passing the second state exam. This consisted of (1) homework from each of the two subjects of the combination (similar to today's diploma thesis but without a defence, only evaluation from the sponsor), (2) written exam work for each subject, with evaluation of the sponsor, and (3) an oral examination before a two-member committee for each subject. Admission to the second state examination required submission of the first state examination and colloquium certificates for the experimental subjects and laboratory reports from the specified subjects. The colloquium was essentially an exam from the lecturer. The first state examination was only oral and took place in front of one examiner for each of the combination subjects. The conditions for admission to the first state examination were similar to those of the second state examination. The examination period was the same as today.

The current digital generation can hardly imagine studying without the Internet and technology. Some lectures can now be watched from home, and the scholarship application is handled with a single click. What was the greatest achievement in teaching when you were in your twenties?

Some institutes were equipped with an electric computing machine. Calculators appeared. However, not every student encountered an electric computing machine during their classes; and when I introduced the use of a slide rule as the leader of the physics practical, it was often perceived as a surprising novelty.

While we are on technology, students now are increasingly using digital Internet resources at the expense of printed publications when writing seminar papers. What do you think about this trend? Have you experienced any interesting cases in this area?

The use of the Internet is natural and it would be wrong if it were not used. However, this does not mean that work with primary sources should be neglected; indeed, there are cases where primary sources are irreplaceable. I will mention two cases.

At the beginning of the reformed study of professional physics in 1954, a group of students came together, almost all of whom had an extraordinary disposition for highly qualified physics. It made good sense, therefore, to offer them a regular, weekly two-hour physics club, with a more demanding program and independent theoretical or experimental work, in addition to the compulsory program. One of the proposed topics was a study of Newton’s derivation of the law of gravity according to the original Latin version. Of course, given the need for knowledge of Latin, one could not assume that anyone would choose this topic. However, the course had been deliberately commissioned to encourage the learning of languages and to encourage an interest in primary sources. It was a surprise, therefore, when some students showed interest in the topic. These were Jiří Grygar, who had been an astronomer for several years, and Linhart Coufal, a Latin expert. In a later meeting, we listened to three very valuable papers, which were the joint work of these students.

The second case concerns Newton’s First Law, the law of inertia. This is a unique physico-historical-linguistic curiosity unprecedented in my knowledge, representing as it does three hundred years of misrepresentation of Newton’s Latin formulation of the First Law as a principle of inertia in translational movement only. In the basic course for students with physics as a main field, I introduce them to the Latin wording of all three laws and their interpretation, including Newton’s commentaries on them. It was necessary to deal with the problem that the First Law appears to be just a special case of the second, and that this does not correspond to Newton’s designation of his fundamental (ultimately just three) laws of motion as axioms (“Axiomata sive leges motus”).

I was convinced that Newton would certainly not limit the system of six laws of motion to just three, when the law of composition of forces (parallelogram), which he rightly referred to as an axiom, was assigned to the three “axioms or laws of motion” as a corollary (appendix) only. And further, that the First Law would be just a special case of the Second Law, as has generally been repeated for three centuries (the first translation of Newton’s ‘Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica’ was published in 1729 by the English translator Motte. As Newton had died in 1727, he was not in a position to draw attention to the defective translation) undoubtedly defies Newton’s rigour when he named the final trio of Axiomata, ‘sive leges motus’. Confidence in Newton's flawless procedure and his conclusions means that there must be something in the formulation of the First Law that precludes it being a special case of the Second Law. And that “something” is to be found in in Newton’s commentary, which comprises three clauses.

The first clause provides an example of the principle of inertia on translational movement, the second an example of the principle of inertia on rotational movement, and the third an example of the superposition of both movements. Here, it is clear that Newton, by using this formulation, means the principle of inertia and rotational motion, and gave it expression by using the term “motus in directum” instead of the translational “motus in linea recta”. My 1975 publication stating this view (Advances in Mathematics, Physics and Astronomy) remained unanswered. In the English materials for a Conference in Lublin (1987), I pointed out the place in the third book of the Principia (Principia, editio 1723, p. 377) where Newton refers to the First Law with uniformity of daily rotation of the planets. In just one citation, there is a one-sentence response where I encourage discussion of rotation in the First Law. It is only since the publication of Newton’s original handwritten manuscript of the ‘Principles’ in 2010, including his modifications, that scientists have been able to make a detailed clarification, showing that all translators of the Principia and “Axiomata sive leges motus” over the past three centuries have synonymised the terms “in linea recta” and “in directum”, which is incorrect. As “in linea recta” refers to a straight line as the simplest line trajectory, Newton ultimately chose “in directum” as the term characterising the simplest form of rotation, i.e. a uniform rotation about an axis that does not change its orientation in space and either stays in one place or moves evenly along a straight line.

Thus, it was possible to arrive at the conclusion that the First Law in Newton’s formulation was demonstrably intended as a formulation for the

law of inertia for both translational and rotational motion and, as such, it could no longer be considered as dependent on the Second Law; and likewise, the Second Law is not dependent on the Third. Nowadays, we are able to derive two impulse-momentum theorems from these two laws, i.e. that the law of inertia of translational motion is a special case of the first impulse theorem, and the law of inertia of rotational motion is a special case of the second impulse theorem. Indeed, today, Newton’s “Axiomata sive leges motus” would be limited to two laws, the second and third, with the first included in the corollaries. Thus, there are three aspects to this conundrum - physical, historical and linguistic - and that is why I used the term “a physico-historical-linguistic curiosity”. It is hard to find a more instructive example of meaningful interest in original sources and not being content with secondary, or even tertiary, sources.

Another phenomenon of our time is work during study. For example, many students work part-time. Was this common during your studies?

Not only was it not normal, it was something quite exceptional. Higher education to a desirable level requires more hours per week than the regular working hours of ‘normal’ employment. The fact that people are able to graduate while working or graduate from more than one university over a period of five years, illustrates a decline in the level required to achieve a successful university degree.

What was the level of prestige accorded to a university degree in the early 1950s, when you earned it?

Not as high as in the First Republic, because university degrees were less uncommon in the 1950s and not so demanding to achieve, though certainly significantly more difficult than today.

Does a degree still carry weight today, when a significantly higher percentage of people study at university?

Of course, the title is still important. However, problems occur when it becomes commonplace to continue straight into Doctoral studies after completing the Master’s Degree, as if the eight- or nine-years of university study needed to complete a Doctorate were the norm. Because of this, the Bachelor’s Degree is not seen as a sufficient university study in its own right.

An important aspect on the path to successful graduation is communication between students and teachers. You yourself have experienced both sides, both as a student and then as a teacher for many years. On the 90th birthday of Masaryk University, Dr. Jiří Grygar, who you formerly supervised, wrote on your commemoration: “Unlike all other university teachers, the young Dr. Černohorsky differed in just about every way from the more-or-less normalised stereotype in the cautious, or even frightened, society in which we had to exist at that time. Above all, we were impressed by the unusual combination of scientific precision and human kindness that characterised every encounter - at lectures and seminars, during rehearsals and even classical music concerts - and by an undeniable deep interest in the joys and sorrows of each student." Should teachers be interested in the joys and woes of every student?

This is of a more general nature and affects the level of higher education in general. The first year of a student’s university studies is very important and provides a long enough time to recognise the student’s talents for the chosen course. With all-round qualified leadership during the first year, each successful graduate should have a high probability of completing his or her studies to a good level. One of the three creators of the exceptionally successful Czechoslovak pavilion during the Osaka ‘EXPO 1970’ was Ing. Aleš Jenček. In 1954, he was one of the exceptionally successful groups who started during the first reformed study of professional physics. He would undoubtedly have graduated in physics; however, even after the first weeks of the semester, I felt that his future lay somewhere else. After a detailed discussion of the possibilities, he made the decision to move to the Faculty of Civil Engineering. This happened at the end of the first semester and his subsequent professional career as an important architect showed the correctness of the decision.

As to the question: Yes, teachers should be more interested in the joys and sorrows of their students.

Are there such conversations between students and teachers today?

They rarely occur.

Why do you think that teachers do not pay enough attention to students?

Maintaining an individual approach in the education process is demanding, and not just from an organisational point of view. For larger groups especially, it is not possible to do this without specialised teaching methods, such as different styles of conducting practical exercises other than the usual way in which the teacher or student would demonstrate in front of a class how to solve the examples. Instead, the teacher and his or her assistants can move among the students and make themselves available, whether because the student asks for help or on their own initiative. This method is highly effective and allows for the otherwise difficult individual approach and its resulting advantages.

What bothers you about the current education system?

The list could be long. I will mention at least one of the key items: I do not recall that the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports has ever organised a conference or seminar on the legislation it creates. The current system of taking a relay baton from the previous management, with such a clearly unproductive and poorly qualified comments procedure, continues to survive. A distinct change for the better would be as simple as imitating the Academic Forum discussions organised by the Czech Physics Society Research Group within the Union of Czech Mathematicians and Physicists (OS OV ČFS JČMF), which I founded in 2008. The activities, or rather passivity, of the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sports in this key area is incomprehensible.

You have lived with Masaryk University for much of your life. How has the university changed over the years?

The three-generation time-span I have been here is so great for each social phenomenon that I can no longer give it a precise description. Over the years, the university has transformed itself into a completely different world, and not just through campus construction. When I started, the university was by far the second largest employer in the region. The under-staffed Economic Management Department of Brno University did their job well, such that the Dean’s Office at the Faculty of Science had four employees, (two in the administration department and two in the student’s office) and the Dean was present on Fridays and was open for consultation between the hours of 11 and 12. It worked; the focus was on the departments and the role of the Directors was clearly defined. There is some inertia in the educational field, but not in the number of workers involved, which has increased by orders of magnitude. However, this is an area where, as in science, comparisons could be made; unlike the economic sphere, where, since universities are no longer state and government autonomously, the situation is significantly different.

What makes you happy about your long time at the university?

On various occasions, I have been approached by former students, often now retired and, in any case, of more advanced age. I have a habit of asking them whether, after all that has happened to them, they would again choose the subject they studied and how satisfied they have been with their professional career. It is, of course, gratifying if their statements are clearly positive. And there is certainly reason to be delighted when one of the reasons given is that the university gave them so much more than just an education. So it only remains to wish that Masaryk University succeeds in such a way that there will always be a lot of satisfaction!

Quod Bonum, Felix, Faustum Fortunatumque Universitati Masarykianae eveniat!

May it be for the good, happiness, welfare and prosperity of Masaryk University!

Profesor Martin Černohorský s doktorem Jiřím Grygarem během diskusního večera pro širší veřejnost "Beseda učitele a studenta po 63 letech" (počítáno od roku 1954). Brno, Moravská zemská knihovna, 13. září 2017. Foto Marie Fojtíková, studentka z doby o 20 let pozdější.

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