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Cillian puts the physical into phsyics

Scientists hope that a new sci-fi film will encourage more young people to study physics at A-level because it features a sexy physicist who saves the world.

Sunshine, the latest offering from Danny Boyle, the director of Trainspotting, stars blue-eyed Irish heart-throb Cillian Murphy as a physicist sent on an unlikely space mission to re-ignite the dying sun.

Dr Philip Diamond, associate director for education at the Institute of Physics, believes the actor's "coolness" could help to break down the subject's image problem.

"The science in the film is somewhat implausible," said Dr Diamond, "but it is great to see a physicist played by a good-looking young actor. It's also positive that the other scientists on board the ship put their faith in him -his knowledge turns out to be the most important.

"He has a certain coolness, which is unusual as physicists are usually shown as geeky and ill-at-ease. This portrayal can only be good for the subject."

Less glamorous, but potentially more effective, proposals for encouraging pupils to study physics were put forward this week by Buckingham university's centre for education and employment research.

The centre compared science departments in 17 comprehensive schools and found that those with a high number of pupils studying beyond GCSE had taught physics as a distinct subject from Year 9 onwards.

Alan Smithers, co-author of the research, said: "While there is no magic bullet for reversing the long period of decline, it does look as if an important first step would be to teach physics as physics, at least from the age of 13."

Too many pupils missed out on discovering whether they liked or were good at physics "because in their schools the subject is wrapped up in science taught by biologists", he said.

The report recommended that schools and colleges share specialist teachers and offer them short sabbaticals and more technical support.

It also said that newly qualified physics teachers often found being the only specialist in their subject difficult, so they should be encouraged to do their first job in schools where there were others.

Claire Stebbing, a science teacher at King Solomon school in Redbridge, east London, said she was glad the film industry was making physicists seem more sexy.

"But chemistry has the same issues," she said. "We need Brad Pitt to play a chemist."

The report, Bucking the Trend, is at www.buckingham.ac.ukeducationresearchceerpublications.html

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