Physics In Schools

By cjohnson | November 22, 2005 12:30 pm

In the Guardian today*, Simon Singh writes about why we should worry about the decline of the number of kids studying physics in school. The context is Britain, but the issues are universal. (Let me again sadly point out that this is an example of what I was talking about when I pointed out a while ago that people from (or with idealized fantasies about how things are in) the UK should not be quite so smug when talking about problems with science education in the USA.)

The article is subtly titled: ‘Keats claimed physics destroyed beauty. Keats was being a prat’, because our enlightened friends at the Guardian are above writing tacky attention-grabbing headlines.


Britain was the home of Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday and Paul Dirac, and Brits made world-class contributions to understanding gravity, quantum physics and electromagnetism – and yet the British physicist is now facing extinction. But so what? Physicists are not as cuddly as pandas, so who cares if we disappear?

A good question, Simon, and….

You should care, and this is why. First, physicists reveal the beauty of the universe. E=mc2 provides us with an incredible insight into how the universe works, showing us that energy (E) and mass (m) can be converted into each other, so that a tiny amount of mass can be destroyed to create a vast amount of energy. That is how the Sun shines. Four million tonnes of the Sun literally vanishes every second, only to reappear in the form of sunshine – energy that lights up our lives.

Ok… and…

John Keats talked of “unweaving the rainbow”, suggesting that Newton destroyed the beauty of nature by analysing light with a prism and splitting it into different colours. Keats was being a prat. Physicists also smile when we see rainbows, but our emotional reaction is doubled by our understanding of the deep physics relating to the prismatic effects of raindrops. Similarly, physicists appreciate sunsets more than anybody else, because we can enjoy the myriad colours and at the same time grasp the nuclear physics that created the energy that created the photons that travelled for millions of years to the surface of the Sun, which then travelled eight minutes through space to Earth, which were then scattered by the atmosphere to create the colourful sunset. Understanding physics only enhances the beauty of nature.

Wait….. I wholeheartedly disagree with the “physicists appreciate sunsets more than anybody else” aspect. This is wrong. I would have written “physicists can appreciate sunsets as much as anybody else”….. Our view of the universe is a wonderful one, but it is not the only valid perspective. (Flame me for this if you like. Take away my membership card…..I don’t care.)

So, without British physicists, our country will not win any more Nobel prizes in physics, we will not do our part in fixing global warming – and UK plc will go down the drain. And yet nobody in power really cares. Physics in British schools has been going downhill for a couple of decades, but both Labour and Conservative governments seem to have taken no notice. After all, nobody is going to die because A-level physics is going out of fashion. There are no photo opportunities in being seen with a physicist.

I’m working on that Simon… just hang on….a few decades perhaps?….. 😉

He goes on to say much more about his view of science education in the UK, some of which is rather strong. I don’t agree with the emphasis of all that he says, but his is right to yell about this.

Have a look. Tell us what you think…..


(*Thanks Samantha!)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science, Science and Society

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

See More

Collapse bottom bar