are nearing the end of the "World Year of Physics", otherwise known as
Einstein Year, as it is the centenary of his annus mirabilis in which
he made three incredible breakthroughs, including special relativity.
In fact, it was 100 years ago yesterday that he published the most
famous equation in the history of physics: E=mc2.
instead of celebrating, physicists are in mourning after a report
showed a dramatic decline in the number of pupils studying physics at
school. The number taking A-level physics has dropped by 38% over the
past 15 years, a catastrophic meltdown that is set to continue over the
next few years. The report warns that a shortage of physics teachers
and a lack of interest from pupils could mean the end of physics in
state schools. Thereafter, physics would be restricted to only those
students who could afford to go to posh schools.
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?
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
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.
you want a concrete return, then physics can deliver that too. E=mc2
underpins the nuclear power industry, which could provide more energy
in the future. If nuclear power replaced fossil fuels, we would pump
less carbon into the atmosphere and thereby halt global warming. If,
instead, you want clean energy via solar cells or wind turbines, then
an understanding of solid state physics or the physics of fluids will
get you several steps closer to an economically viable solution. Either
way, physics provides the best hope of saving the planet.
it should not be forgotten that A-level physicists have a direct impact
on the economy, because some of us become the inventors, innovators and
engineers that create high-quality jobs and major exports. The people
behind Google and Microsoft and Apple did physics at high school, as
opposed to majoring in psychology or media studies.
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.
the desperate state of British physics education was brought home to me
when I reflected on why my parents migrated to this country in 1950.
They came here so that their children had the guarantee of a good
education. However, today India produces more mathematicians than the
whole of the European Union.
budding boffin in Bangalore probably stands more chance of having good
mathematics and physics teachers than the equivalent bright young spark
condemned to a British science education. A British politician in 1950
would have laughed at the thought of Indian schools ever being better
than British schools, but last year's Physics Olympiad shows how things
have changed. In this international competition for schools students,
India won two gold medals, two silvers and a bronze, whereas Britain
won only two bronzes.
Britain's negligent attitude to physics education, we do not deserve to
be celebrating the centenary of Einstein's annus mirabilis. Instead,
perhaps we should be marking 2005 as the 50th anniversary of his death,
which would be in keeping with the moribund status of A-level physics
· Simon Singh has a PhD in particle physics. He is the author of Big Bang, a history of cosmology.
Do you know your Newton from your neutrons?
1. A metal plate is heated to 200C with a bunsen burner. It subsequently cools by emitting what kind of radiation? a) Ultraviolet waves b) Gamma rays c) Infrared rays d) Radio waves
2. You're in the back of a stationary car with a helium balloon. When the car accelerates, which way does the balloon move? a) Forwards b) Backwards c) Up d) It doesn't move
3. What two properties of a particle does Heisenberg's uncertainty principle say you can't measure at the same time? a) Energy and mass b) Position and momentum c) Position and mass d) Momentum and velocity
4. A skater is spinning on a spot with her arms outstretched. What happens when she pulls her arms in? a) Nothing b) She changes direction c) She spins more slowly d) She spins more quickly
5. A big wooden ball and a small ball bearing sit at the top of a slope. When they are released, which reaches the bottom first?
a) The wooden ball b) The ball bearing c) They both get there at the
same time d) Depends on the masses of the balls and the angle of the
6. If the Sun were to disappear right now, how long would it be before we noticed? a) Straight away b) About 8 minutes c) Just over an hour d) Almost a day