The Story of Phoenix

Looking back as my stay here at IUAC, Delhi comes to an end, it has been an extremely enriching experience for me, working on the Phoenix project under Ajith sir. He has been working at the Inter University Accelerator Centre for well over twenty years, right since the institue was set up in 1984, and had been actively involved in the setting up of the accelerator research facility during its early years. A few days ago I asked Ajith sir how and when he got the idea to start the Phoenix project. Let me present his reply, along with some other information, in the form of an article.

The Story of Phoenix

Introduction

When you conduct experiments in modern Physics, the equipment involved is often huge and complicated, which is beyond a human being’s ability to control. Also, precise measurement of time and fast and continuous measurement of physical quantities are often required. Consequently, such experiments are automated, and computer interfaced. This means that the scientist carries out the experiment by controlling the equipment using a computer.

Carrying out an experiment consists of different steps. The first step is to activate the equipment, that is, to start the physical phenomenon which is to be studied. For example, in a simple pendulum experiment, this step would be to set the pendulum in motion. Once the physical system is active, we record the observations. This is the second step – data acquisition. And the final step is the analysis of the data obtained. Computers are unique in that they can be used for all these three steps, with the appropriate peripheral equipment.

Why Phoenix?

When a student who has completed her post graduate studies in Physics starts doing research, she inevitably has to carry out computer interfaced experiments. But we do not get such exposure in our education system, even at the post graduate level. As a result, it is likely that the student would find herself in highly unfamiliar territory. Of course, the research facility would provide a friendly interface and adequate help to the student to complete her experiment successfully, but chances are that the student might not have developed a feel for the whole procedure. This affects the quality of research.

So what is the way out? The obvious solution is to introduce computer interfaced experiments right at the undergraduate or even high school level. One of the main obstacles is the cost involved. Though computers have become inexpensive, commercially available data acquisition hardware is too expensive to be affordable for college labs, where teaching/learning and not research, is the main objective. Thus the idea of building a low cost data acquisition hardware, and subsequently “Physics with Home-made Equipment and Innovative Experiments” (Phoenix), evolved. Phoenix is a big step in the right direction. It is easily affordable for colleges and can be interfaced with personal computers through 100% free and open source software.

The Early Days

The first version of Phoenix was completed around September 2004. It communicated with the computer through the parallel port interface, and depended entirely on the computer CPU for control. Time measurements were done using the CPU clock itself, using real time operating system features. The device driver took care of all the control and measurements. It was first implemented using DOS, and later using real time linux.

The first Phoenix workshop was held on 11 November 2004 at the University of Calicut, Kerala. The first workshop hosted by IUAC was conducted from the 3rd to 14th of October 2005. Many such workshops have been held since. Physics teachers from all parts of the country have taken part in these programs. More such workshops will be conducted in the future. You can find a complete list of the Phoenix workshops conducted so far, as well as announcements regarding future workshops at http://iuac.res.in/~elab/phoenix/workshops/index.html.

Thus the parallel port version kicked off the Phoenix activities. As it later became completely based on free and open source software (FOSS), it attracted interest from the FOSS community, most notably from Pramode C E, who continues to be an active developer/promoter of Phoenix. As a result, demonstrations of Phoenix have since been held at some of the prominent FOSS events like FOSS.IN, FOSSMeet@NITC etc.

Need for a Simpler Hardware/Interface

But the parallel port version was never going to be viable in the long run. For one thing, it was bulky. More importantly, for using it on a computer, you had to compile the device driver with the kernel. This would have been too difficult a task for the end user. As a result, it was not very portable, in the sense that you could not just plug Phoenix in and start using it. Some amount of expertise in programing was required for installing the Phoenix driver. It is still a valuable tool for students for learning how to write device drivers, though.

This led to a complete redesign of Phoenix in early 2006. The new design was based on the Atmel ATMega16 microcontroller, which shifted the control tasks from the real time kernel, to the firmware (written in C and compiled using the AVR-GCC cross compiler) running on the microcontroller. This made things a lot simpler. Now once you burnt the firmware onto the microcontroller flash memory, all you needed was a code library to communicate with it from the PC (through the RS232 serial port interface). No more complicated device drivers! Also, this made the hardware schematic simpler and easier to debug. The new version of Phoenix was named the Phoenix-Mini, or Phoenix-M for short. It was also much more compact (13cm x 10.5cm x 2.5 xm) and cheaper (it costs only around Rs.1500) than its predecessor.

Ready for the Market!

Phoenix-M was ready by the end of May 2006, and started being produced commercially by three different vendors in different parts of India. You can find information about these vendors at http://iuac.res.in/~elab/phoenix/vendor.html. Since the cost of research and development is funded by the IUAC and the schematics are made freely available, the vendors are able to provide the hardware at a low price, based on the cost of raw material and the labour involved.

Phoenix Live CD

By this time, workshops were being held in different parts of the country, and the need for a portable suite of the Phoenix software libraries arose. This resulted in the development of the Phoenix Live CD, which is a complete customized GNU/Linux operating system (based on the Slax live CD) which you can boot from the CD without needing to install anything to the hard disk. It contains, apart from all the software needed to use Phoenix, a collection of free and open source scientific/educational software tools. You can download the Phoenix live CD from http://iuac.res.in/~elab/livecd_images/index.html. A new version based on Debian GNU/Linux is also being developed.

Recent Developments

Laptop computers have become popular, and many of them do not provide the RS232 interface. So, a new USB version of Phoenix-M was developed in late 2007. It communicates with the computer, using a USB to RS232 converter implemented by firmware running on a dedicated on-board controller. Apart from this, the Phoenix Microcontroller Development Kit (PMDK) has also been developed to provide a low cost, easy to use microcontroller development system, mainly for engineering students and electronics enthusiasts. Several add-on boards have also been designed for use with PMDK. This modular structure is useful for application in the projects of engineering students.

Future Direction and Challenges

The Phoenix project has matured since its beginning in 2004. We now have a reliable, cost-effective product which is ready for mass deployment. Some academic institutions have already started using Phoenix. For example, the West Bengal University of Technology(WBUT) has included it in their refresher course for Physics teachers. The Department of Education, Kerala, has initiated a project to use Phoenix as a tool for IT enabled education at the high school level.

But there are many challenges that lie ahead, before Phoenix can become a regular part of the curriculum. First of all, computer interfacing of scientific experiments is an entirely new concept, to most of the Physics teachers and students in India. This hurdle can be overcome only through a series of Phoenix workshops. But for its effect to be far-reaching, we need to build a community of enthusiasts from different parts of the country, who can help in conducting workshops. Only with a stong community and user base, can we be assured that Phoenix will realize its potential to revolutionize science education in our country.

Suggested Reading

1. A Report on Phoenix, by B.P. Ajith Kumar.

2. Experimental Physics with Phoenix and Python, by Pramode.C.E

License

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18 thoughts on “The Story of Phoenix

  1. Sure! And I think we should catch the first years as well. From my experience, your motivation for learning goes down exponentially as the course progresses.

  2. We had a discussion on the feasibility/adaptability of this projects.

    I still maintain that physics experiments should be done the traditional way – I feel this project is trying to introduce computers where they are not really needed. This is a fundamental problem – introducing computers in all areas of education. We had centuries of education without them. And that is where we had maximum inventions done.

    Moreover, computers are expensive to buy, maintain, service etc. You need expertise. think on how many computers a village school or a junior college can afford to buy. Top that with programming skill availability.

    I am not discouraging. Possibly as you said, this might be useful at a research level. But I doubt the feasibiilty of it at school, pre-degree/+2 or undergraduate levels. Moreover, usage only at a higher level is against the aim of this project.

    Just to put one point – you spoke about the accuracy of measurement. A student can never understand the problems of accurate measurement unless s/he does the experiment the traditional way and commits mistakes.

    Computers kill your creativity. Please keep them away from physics labs.

    I am curious to know how we can use computers to automate the experiment “measure the value of ‘g’ using a simple pendulum”. This is an experiment one can do with a stone tied to a string and a stopwatch (or even a wristwatch provided you take large number of oscillations). I remember getting accurate results during my pre-degree labs in St. Thomas college, Thrissur. That accuracy sufficed for the scenario and I don’t understand why we need accuracy to a 6th digit. I can also think of computer spoiling the essence of other experiments like potentiometer, simple balance, tuning fork, spectrometer… I cannot understand or appreciate the need of computers for these experiments.

    The aim of lab experiments does not end with academic marks. Instead they also enable the artist in you and help you live life a little smarter.

    I am a computer professional myself; so my humble request to please keep computers out of physics labs.

  3. >> I feel this project is trying to introduce computers where they are not really needed. This is a fundamental problem – introducing computers in all areas of education.”

    The aim of this project is not to introduce computers in education, rather to tap its potential where it might make learning more interesting and exciting.

    >>computers are expensive to buy, maintain, service etc. You need expertise.

    What if it is worth the investment? And you really can’t pretend that computers are *too* expensive nowadays.

    >> Top that with programming skill availability.

    You really don’t need to be an expert programmer to use Phoenix. And who said programing is rocket science? School children could do magic if they are introduced to programing at an early age using a language like Python.

    >> A student can never understand the problems of accurate measurement unless s/he does the experiment the traditional way and commits mistakes.

    Phoenix is not supposed to wipe off traditional experiments from the labs. On the other hand, it can supplement and enhance the traditional experiments by making possible avenues of exploration which were never before accessible.

    >> The aim of lab experiments does not end with academic marks. Instead they also enable the artist in you and help you live life a little smarter.

    I couldn’t agree with you more. But I simply can’t see how Phoenix interferes with that noble objective.

  4. Let me see…

    How is simple pendulum experiment done? Suspend a weight on a thread whose length is accurately known (enough accuracy of mm). Have a small displacement to the weight horizontally to set it in motion. Note the time it takes for about 20 oscillations or so. Rest is calculation. Something I can do at home. Assumptions are i) sin a = a (angle is small – you can achieve with a long string) ii) resistance due to air is negligible and damping happens only due to gravity.

    How to do this using computers? you need a computer with advanced interfaces. You need a transducer to set the pendulum in motion. You need a sensor with high sensitivity to record the oscillations. You need a program to do the calculations. You need to ensure that there is a horizontal force in only 1 direction (in short, the weight should not follow a circular or oval path). You need electricity. (yes, you cannot do the experiment during power shortage or when computer is down!!!)

    Do we realise that the experiment can be finished manually within the time the computer takes to boot up?

    I don’t claim programming is rocket science. But it is not every child’s play either. Most of the folks who claim to be programmers don’t even know the basics. We already discussed that in person. Anybody can do “magic” if they know programming. But please don’t rob their childhood urging them to start coding. We already have a generation sitting in front of TV rather than playing after school. I would not like to see that getting extended further.

    To your first point of making experiments more interesting.. computers are dull. Period. Beyond an initial fancy, what difference does it bring in the way experiments are done? All you do to perform any experiment is … boot the computer, type in a few commands. Is this the way students should be taught to do experiments like spectrometer? I don’t agree!

    We should be trying to simplify experiments – we are trying to complicate simple experiments by bringing in unnecessary contraptions like sensors and transducers. Please.. take them away! Simple experiments drive the science behind them into students’ minds. Computers can never do that.

    If you want to see how to simplify an experiment, go to Visweshwaraiah museum in Bangalore. Just one example of a binary counter is sufficient. For that matter, how many of the experiments there are computerised. Do you think anyone will go to that museum if we were to computerise? Who will want to see a 2 stroke or a 4 stroke engine or turbines or surface tension or elasticity or speed of sound or light effects or an electric arc similar to a lightning on a computer screen? Even elders derive pleasure doing these experiments themselves.

    I will accept the point of accuracy provided the use of computers is used where accuracy is really warranted – research levels or at the most at post graduate level. Not before that. So the project is good, but please direct it to the right audience. Possibly it can augment the experiments done in lab, like you say. But the price in terms of time and complexity and the learnings is too high. For once, I accept that failures are stepping stones to success. Let students commit mistake and learn. Otherwise – everyone will have a computer printout with most accurate results.

    How to plot the characteristics of a diode or an npn transistor? I know you can use a computer. WHY? WHAT FOR? I derive much more pleasure using a voltage source, a voltmeter, rheostats, diodes, transistors, breadboards..

    You say that computers are not expensive. I don’t agree, they are still expensive for schools. A decent computer still costs about 25000 INR. Top that with your transducers, sensors, connectivity, price for software (at least in terms of hiring a computer programmer), running costs..

    Now, you can counterargument saying students can learn programming and contribute themselves. I would say the time they invest in learning computer should be invested in diong the experiments. They can benefit more that way.

    My best wishes to the project. My only request is to target it to specific audience, not to schools or colleges running pdc or undergraduate courses.

  5. Mr. Praveen,
    One healthy debate is worth more than a dvd full of praise. Thanks for stirring one up. I love computers and in particular I enjoy interfacing them to the physical world. But that is not the reason for this comment from me. The bigger reason is that I have been teaching Physics for over 2 decades and my concern is about the way it is being taught. Doing an experiment well and taking accurate readings, though essential, is a very small part of Physics. The real challenge is to figure out what the experiment is trying to communicate to us. We usually stop with ” OK, so you got g=10m/s^2, whatever, so 9.8/10 marks.. Who’s next!!” Somehow, the poor pendulum gets lost in this. It is time we realised that the numbers are for Physics, not the other way around. I am sure PHOENIX can help here. It already has!!

  6. Hi Shashidharan sir,

    Greetings.

    My humble doubt – you and most of the others say that the challenge is in trying to interpret what we can gather from the experiment. Now most folks feel the way any subject is taught is wrong. What are the root causes?

    Should we not be addressing these issues than trying to complicate teaching by introducing computers? When I was studying, computers to me sounded more like a monitor and a keyboard. Little did I realise both these are not needed for most computers.

    I am thinking from a very junior student’s perspective – how can we blame him if we firmly believes we need a computer to do a physics experiment and that any readings obtained without a computer is useless and inaccurate?

    I took up the example of pendulum only because Kishore mentioned it in the blog. If you say that students getting satisfied if they get 9.8 for g is not sufficient, we need to make them realise what is really expected. Instead we are trying to take the help of computers. I hope we are not assuming that computers can impart this knowledge we ourselves have not been able to instill in students.

    In short, I firmly believe we are trying to circumvent a problem instead of addressing the root cause.

    I am not an education expert or a visionary. But these are my personal thoughts which I thought I will pen down.

  7. Hello,
    Interesting. A simple pendulum is getting complicated.Accurate
    measurements have some advantage (I did not see the period of a pendulum varying with amplitude when i did it in my Pre-Degree, saw recently when done with phoenix).

    Let me just state some of the goals that drives me to work on Phoenix;

    1. Give students the freedom to explore things themselves.

    2. Give exposure to technology to the ones interested in it. A country having a lot of technology users should have people making it also.

    3. Give some modern experiments to the Degree and PG labs, where
    things have degraded a lot ( only this was the original aim, for that I am also getting paid)

    The report below explains these briefly.

    Click to access phoenix_report.pdf

    ajith

  8. Hello,

    my opinion is that we just can add both abilities:

    – making experiments without computers, and getting and immediate feedback from errors
    – making experiments with computers, to make more experiences in a limited amount of time, and use tools to digest thousands of measurements.

    My students always get instructions to begin with direct measurments, not relying on any computer interface, and they must write a report which can hardly be invented by using their computr’s capabilities. Then, they perform a computer-assisted experiment, which allows them to get thousands of measurements of the same physical experiment.

    The scoring of their report usually consists of 30% for a description of the observed phenomena, in qualitative mode, 30% for making immediate measurements (without a computer), 20% for gathering data series with the computer, 20% for applying the same analysis on this dataflow, than they did for the little set of immediate data.

    These students are trained (3 hours a week) two years before their graduation, and there is no extra training during the two following school years. All my colleagues notice a very significative difference in ability for the experimental physics test at graduation, between students who were trained and students who chose other options two years before.

    Best regards, Georges.

  9. Hi Ajithsir,

    I will leave this discussion forum with just one last comment.

    >Give students the freedom to explore things themselves.
    Great. Don’t need the help of computers for achieving this aim.

    >Give exposure to technology to the ones interested in it. A country
    >having a lot of technology users should have people making it also.
    Ok, we need to give students exposure in physics, not computer technology.

    >Give some modern experiments to the Degree and PG labs, where
    >things have degraded a lot
    But did we pause to think why the things degraded in these labs? And is a computer a right solution for the problem? I don’t feel.

    I have no doubt you cannot observe the deviation in values in g you get with large oscillations (where sin a != a) when you do manually. But as I said, accuracy is not really needed even upto undergraduate levels. I may be wrong, but I stick to my view. It is better off to tell students not to test the tensile strength of the string by making it oscillate all the way from 180 degrees of its resting position.

    Bye!

  10. Kishore, I don’t agree that motivation goes down exponentially as the course progresses. At least in my case, I saw a steep rise in my enthusiasm. Esp after a stage where a student realises what he is studying – when you approach the core subjects.

  11. Hmm!
    I wish to emphasise one point though. I am not in the least trying to suggest that a good computer is a substitute for a bad teacher or an unimaginative curriculum. Rather, a good computer makes a good class/teacher better. Like with most other products, quality education is also a matter of supply and demand. If my neighbour’s son told my daughter that he had seen a GM counter in his school, sooner or later, my daughter would ask for it too.
    Public demand => better curriculum=>better education => better jobs =>more job satisfaction =>public demand. The regenerative cycle has to be begun at the grass roots. let’s first realise what we are missing. The democracy will eventually catch up. This faith should be at the heart of every new idea in education.

  12. Use of Phoenix makes certain experiments possible, one of which I was glad to read, described in Section 2.1 of the Phoenix Report,

    Click to access phoenix_report.pdf

    This particular experiment (EM Induction) cannot be done to the same quality without the help of a computer, unless you possess expensive equipment like storage oscilloscopes which help you see and capture the transient waveform which fleets by !

    The pendulum example is of no use in this discussion, as it is a very simple experiment. How many BSc students have seen a waveform like that shown in Section 2.1 ? (Or, How many have even seen a storage oscilloscope or know how to use it ?)

    Any experimentation tool, whether it is an accurate stop watch or a screw gauge or a computer-aided device, is welcome if it helps better observations and better learning.

    With all due respect, will Mr Shashidharan object to the use of an oscilloscope too ? If not, how does he justify his objection to the use of Phoenix ?

    BTW I live in Singapore and I have seen that many colleges in India have pathetic equipment and facilities.

    [ And of course, I am not saying that the power of the mind-brain can be substituted for by any tool. Power of imagination and power of observation are two different things. ]

  13. I am sorry, in the previous post I should have said Mr Praveen P in place of Mr Shashidharan. Really sorry for the confusion there.

  14. phonix live cd ver. 5.3 not working with asus p5kpl series mother board

    error : scannin pci bus….. and stops

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