Where Are All The Physicists?

A new report says Physics is at risk of dying out in schools. However can this be, when Physics is one of the most intrguing and exciting stories on the block?
I have a real Thing about how invisible Science and Technology are. It’s everywhere around us; yet most people seem simply not to see it.
Hw do we transact our communications? How do we take ourselves from A to B? How do we keep our food fresh and our homes warm… You get the picture.
But there’s no Big Take on science. We imagine those who actually do it are ‘Boffins’ (whatever that may mean). And anyway it’s all too hard with too many sums, so who cares?
The Missing Physicists
In the light of this general view (correct me if it’s wrong), I’m hardly surprised to read today that there is a severe deficit of Physicists. Again, So what?, you may ask.
Well, it’s like this: Physicists and those in closely related disciplines are the people who lead much of the high-spend and high-impact knowledge economy. They take our understanding of the world and how it is made to places people in previous generations never even dreamt of; and with their engineering colleagues they also lead much of our industrial innovation.
Plus, they are the people who teach the next generation about the nature of what at the most fundamental levels makes the world go round. Taught properly, this is one of the most exciting things anyone can ever learn…. I studied A-level Physics many years ago, and although I shall never make a Physicist, it hooked me. You see things in a very different, and quite amazing, light when you begin to learn what sub-atomic particles are all (or even a bit) about!
Why aren’t there enough Physics teachers?
I’d guess there are a number of answers to the question of where all the Physics teachers have gone.
Firstly, good Physicists get snapped up in industry and finance, for large amounts of money. Not many others can manipulate and analyse figures like they can. Teachers’ salaries are no match for what the city and the biggest industrial companies can offer.
Then there’s the prospect of teaching itself. Teaching is difficult, it can be draining, a lot of children are – and always have been – resistant to the sort of complex studies required by well defined disciplines (in any academic field).
And finally, in my books, there’s the question of ‘relevance’. Because we hardly ‘see’ Science and Technology, we don’t understand why it’s relevant.. and you try teaching youngsters things which they believe have no relevance…
The excitement of Physics
But it’s not even just that there are now fewer Physics teachers than before. A news story this week also tells us that the number of Physics teachers who are actually well qualified has dropped dramatically.
Would it be reasonable to suggest that some of this is because Science, and especially the hard physical sciences, are so invisible that we don’t value it? If we did, of course, people would want to teach Physics, and even more importantly students would want to study it.
There’s a big challenge here for the scientists themselves: Tell people, loudly and clearly, why Physics excites you! Show them why it’s ‘relevant’… and even maybe tell them that the best Physicists earn lots of money….
In other words, please try to understand that even the most challenging and abstract ideas in disciplines such as Physics can become interesting, when people know these ideas exist and perceive them as integral to our society and how it is moving forward, in so many ways.
There’s a massive PR job to be done here. Investigating the very nature of matter is about as exciting as it gets. We all need to share in the excitement; but that can only happen when someone takes action to ensure we know about it.

Posted on November 21, 2005, in Education, Health And Welfare, Equality, Diversity And Inclusion, Knowledge Ecology And Economy, Science Politics And Policy. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Well, did you know that the World Wide Web, that thing on which we all depend on now for info, communication, entertainment etc was invented by a Physicist!? It was down to a guy called Tim Berners Lee who worked at the CERN lab in Geneva on a massive subatomic experiment there, who wanted an easier way to transfer data between the different academic institutions that needed to analyse it. And he was never paid a penny for it! (Perhaps that was his mistake – if he’d taken a cut he’d be the richest guy alive, and what would that do for the reputation of Physicists?!)
    Unfortunately, in schools and in general, there is a commonly held perception that physics is hard. And it’s not just the kids who think that… apparently it’s the teachers too. But so what? If you can do maths, you can do physics – because the maths is the hard bit! Physics is the interesting bit because it’s applied maths. And it’s fundamental to understanding other sciences too. There’s a fixation (quite rightly) on making kids numerate, but there should also be a fixation on making them think logically through a problem and not just number crunch (which is what you can get away with in maths, to a certain level at least).
    So make physics compulsory! Along with IT and at least one language…. but don’t get me started on that one!

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