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
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  • hack

    Um, so he’s basically saying, physicists are like poets, but better at math, and more expensive for society to support. I’m not sure that’s a winning argument.

  • Daniel

    While I (mostly) hate to agrandize and pimp my little scribbly area, I hate more retyping something I feel I hit fairly well the first (or, in this case, the second) time ’round. There is this temptation to throw the baby out with the bathwater when responding to the general ID-infused public discourse, or more generally, to presume that any God-loving person is a waste of flesh while every scientist is invaluable. I wrap this post around some of this concern for egalitarianism of enlightenment. This other post touches on similar aspects of the generalized discussion, if in something of a meandering style.

    Yes, I kind of feel dirty about this pimping, but hopefully I can make a contribution to the discussion that overcomes that. Maybe.

  • Belizean

    I view a reduction of interets in A-level study of physics (as opposed to O-level study) as beneficial. If the U.K. is like the U.S., there is a surplus of physicists.

    In the U.S. there are on the order of 1200 new physics Ph.D.s produced each year. Nowhere near as many physics jobs are created.

    There is likely a connection between probable unemployment and reduced student interest.

  • Daniel

    I wouldn’t think it would be controversial to suppose that it’s more important that the population at large receive a stronger basic education than some extreme minority receive advanced education, and that could be said for most disciplines. Of course we need a balance; but, if Belizean is correct, the demand for Ph.D.s is being met more than adequately, and so is of lower current priority.

  • Lubos Motl

    That’s interesting, Clifford, that we picked the same topic at the same day – probably independently. I found it via

  • Clifford

    Lubos Motl:- Hi. Well, they say “great minds think alike”. I will not be so presumptuous, and so will modify that to “minds in roughly the same universality class sometimes think alike”…. or something really compelling like that. :-)



  • Clifford

    Belizean, and others.


    With respect, you’re entirely missing the point of education. And have you seen the A-level curriculum? We’re not talking about quantum field theory here, we’re talking about high school physics. (And O-levels don’t exist any more by the way…. they’ve been replaced by, um….themed stamp-collecting, largely. (I’ll get shouted at for this) My point is that they’re too basic a level to stop at.)

    Note that:

    You don’t have a music curriculum in order to produce concert pianists or professional orchestral musicians, or rock stars….

    You don’t teach English literature and language in schools to produce novelists.

    You don’t get the kids reading Wilson, Milton, Shakespeare, Witman in order to produce playwrights and poets.

    You don’t teach how to do algebra to produce mathematicans.

    You don’t teach them social/civic studies (or whereever thy learn about how the government works) in order to produce MPs, governors, senators, councillors and congressmen.

    So why would you think that you teach people physics in schools to produce professional physicists? That’s just bizarre.

    You don’t teach children physics (or any other science) in schools in order to produce professional physicists (scientists).



  • a.krug

    You don’t get the kids reading Wilson, Milton, Shakespeare, Witman in order to produce playwrights and poets.

    Which Wilson are you referring to? I can think of a couple of candidates but none I was ever asked to read in school…

  • Plato

    Understanding physics only enhances the beauty of nature.

    Not just dew drops either :) You have to see the interest on a child’s face to know what I mean.

  • Clifford


    August Wilson.

    (Remember, cvj lives in fantasy world.)



  • a.krug


    That’s who I expected. I agree, it would be nice if more people read him. I also had in mind Edmund Wilson, but it seems like he’s more interesting for his place in literary history than for his actual works.

    Of course, it would also be nice to have all schoolchildren know something about Ken Wilson, or better yet Bob Wilson (particularly “It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending.”). And how about Brian Wilson? 😉

  • Tom Weidig

    Hi Clifford

    The statistics might actually be misleading. Over the last years, the UK government has had a policy of increasing the number of people who go to university.

    I guess the number of people who studies physics in absolute numbers has remained relatively stable or only dropped slightly, and thus the percentage has gone down.

    So arguably, those extra students are from the bottom ability range, and will not or are not allowed to choose physics.

    Might be worth looking closer at the stats?

  • Darwin


    I’d just like to point out that this fall of 38% over the past 15 years has nothing to do with Witten and string theory 1985-2005. String theory actually encourages students to study the subject. The numbers decline because the good students are all in parallel universes or in warped extra dimensions, so aren’t counted in the official statistics.

    Again, propaganda lies exposed in physics, like the safety of nuclear power exposed at Chernobyl in 1986, where heavy fallout (rainout actually) contaminated a million sheep with Cs-137 for four to five years, actually increased student numbers.

    Most of all, the orthodody of science as manifested in the arrogance of string theory actually encourages students to study it, and the statistics are misleading. When in a hole, keep digging. Keep up the string propaganda and all the other unpopular fantasy, and student numbers will rise, if not in this universe then in a parallel one where nobody can ever check and discredit your theories and predictions.

    I think we should be celebrating the successes of string theory, not dwelling on falling student numbers. String theory predicts every type of universe you could possibly want. Who cares if it doesn’t give testable numbers. Students want propaganda.

  • Darwin

    My nearest university is Essex university, which no longer has a physics department. It shut down due to no uptake:

    ” Noted that the Physics Department was closed in recent years due to poor student application numbers, can’t imagine why, the Physics students were considered to be the most well adjusted individuals on campus.” –…bs/ eighties.htm

    The IAEA are so outdated they still host a page from Essex University physics dept before it closed down:…97/ node291.html which states:

    “Research activities:

    “Fusion research centres on understanding the interaction of high power laser light with matter, the study of dense plasmas produced using lasers, and the development of diagnostics for use in ICF and MCF. A 100GW Neodymium laser based at the University, various high power lasers available at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory or other European laboratories, and the JET tokamak are used. Theoretical effort centres on the study of scattering, magnetic field generation and turbulence relevant to ICF during laser plasma interactions.”

    The point I’m making is that falling numbers of students in physics at school spells falling job vacancies for professors, lecturers, researchers. It is a tragedy.

  • Zelah

    I hate to say it but…

    There just is not much of a future for physics in the 20th century and EVERTBODY KNOW IT!

    Do engineering or business instead!

    An amateur mathematician.

  • Zelah

    I meant of course 21st century! Also EVERYBODY not the above.

    Many apologies.

  • Plato

    Hi Darwin,

    So by your reasoning, condensed matter physicists would be really happy to just deal with matter principles(whatever the building blocks of matter are?)The bottom up approach, while holography by philosophical attachment, should become irrelevant while we discuss the dimensional significance of where we are now in the networld?


    Banchoff, deals with two dimensional problems on the computer screen, while he demonstrates fifth dimensional understanding?

    Our discussions, have much greater depth? Not outside of ourselves but inside:) Just assume “all ideas” already exist and we just have to “access” them?


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