Eureka!;Talkback

13th March 1998 at 00:00
THE SCIENCE COLUMN

Physics should be wonderfully exciting, not a turn-off, says Victoria Neumark.

The number of students taking physics A-level continues to drop. Physics teachers at universities have been leaving the country in droves since the 1980s and some university physics departments have closed. Why is this? Here are my two theories.

Two of my children are studying science at secondary school. They are enthusiastic about chemistry and biology, but damn physics. It's boring. What makes it boring? Everything. Chalk and talk, talk and talk. "You don't do experiments yourself, you just watch the teacher." The strictness of method, the way in which lab work has to be written up, the abstract nature of the concepts. Yet these are children who are, respectively, "gifted" in maths and languages, who enjoy reading, who want to know what the fuss is about Fermat's Last Theorem and discuss whether Buddhism, without a personal God, is really a religion. So they are not averse to structure, to formal presentation, to abstract debate.

Debate, huh? So far as a parent can tell, there is no debate in secondary physics. All is known, and all the pupil has to do is write it down and memorise it. For children who were raised on "discovering science" in primary school and who have been drawn eagerly into term-long projects on the use of chlorine and the ecology of hedges, old textbooks on heat, light and sound just do not cut it.

The language of school physics is out of date. Despite the success of Stephen Hawking's Brief History of Time, of all the sci-fi TV series which rely so heavily on bastardised concepts taken from physics (the speed of light, relativity, space-time continuum, black holes, anti-matter, lasers, cosmic rays), it seems that school physics capitalises on none of these. Instead, it is, "Draw your lens vertically," and "Underline the conclusion". How absurd this is. We live in a world dominated by the great discoveries of physics. From micro-processors to jet engines, from contact lenses to cars, our lives are shaped by contact with technology. But somehow, it isn't made exciting. I don't mean made exciting in the "every day's a holiday" way that drains teachers dry, but in the way that a genuine interest in the subject ought to ignite.

And so to my second observation. It looks as if physics is moving into the cultural position vacated by classics. It is the preserve of an alite (taught more strongly at independent schools) who no longer command the world. Great physics, electronics and discoveries seem to come from elsewhere, from Japan, the USA, the Far East. Furthermore, science is seen to be implicated in the destruction of the planet. Science, and particularly physics, is the Wicked Stepmother of knowledge.

What can be done to change this perception? More people need to study science, for if it is science that got us into our environmental mess, it will be science that has to get us out. We need more scientific heroes to inspire young people, we need more teachers who love their subject, and we need a sea change in science teaching so that learning the laws of nature becomes a journey of discovery and not a penitential task.

Victoria Neumark is a freelance journalist.

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