Professor Wakeham, chair of last year’s RCUK Review into the Health of UK Physics was talking at the IOP yesterday about the challenge of physics communication – here’s some of what he said:
“There are two dramatically different perceptions of physics and thoughts on the way it should be presented to those who can ensure the subject’s future health – whether it’s to schoolchildren, their parents or politicians. One stems from the desire to spread the good news of physics; a cutting-edge discipline that underpins nearly all of our scientific advances in medicine, energy security, climate change and gadgetry. If you want to succeed in the world, whether it’s financially or as a world-changing scientist, physics is a sterling choice for A-level and degree-level studies.
“On the other side, there is the purist’s view of physics. Physics is about the big questions – what is the origin of our universe, what are dark matter and dark energy, how many dimensions are there – and, to the purist, ‘leakage’ into what is, arguably, more socially useful sub-disciplines of physics is a cause for concern. Physics is the pursuit of pure and fundamental knowledge.
“While the good news of physics is spreading and the number of young scientists staying on to do physics at A-level is moving up again, no one’s quite sure which of the two messages is having the biggest impact.
“In academia, whether you’re looking at the increase in the number of PhD students or success in obtaining research grants, there is no doubt, despite recent outcries, that particle and astrophysics disciplines, which pursue pure knowledge, are winning out. Between 2001 and 2008, there were 50 new academic posts open to astronomers and astrophysicists; in the sub-discipline of medical physics, the number of posts dropped by ten over the same period.
“While academia moves in one direction, other forces suggest that many audiences are more responsive to the side of physics which is, arguably, more immediately socially useful. You only need to visit the Royal Society’s Summer Exhibition and you’ll see a focus on engineering applications of physics.
“A great loss to physics in the UK remains the proportion of women and ethnic minority students who choose to take the subject up to A-level but then not beyond. It’s conceivable that these groups are switching off from physics because we have been unclear as to the career paths that are open to those well-trained in physics.
“While undertaking the review into the health of physics in the UK, we spoke to many employers about physics graduates and we received an exceedingly positive response. Physics graduates were clearly valued for their problem-solving skills, their can-do attitude and their intellectual rigour. However it seemed to me that it was employers furthest form the subject in, for example, finance who were the most pleased with their physics employees. Those in, say, commercial R&D or defence were impressed by the physicists’ intelligence but were underwhelmed by their practical skills.
“Not only then do physics degrees heavily-oriented around big questions restrict the appeal of physics; they may also be doing a disservice to graduates in a competitive marketplace.
“The discipline is incredibly well-respected but we must ask whether it has become too narrow.
“We need all to know that physics is not just dark matter and quarks but is also the means to solving our energy crisis; medical physics has saved hundreds of thousands of lives through the development of technologies like magnetic resonance imaging (MRI); and physics is a crucial key to successful commercial R&D, creating the next must-have gadget. Physics is just as much the iPod as it is CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.”