Keats claimed physics destroyed beauty. Keats was being a prat

(Last edited: Sunday, 18 December 2005, 2:18 PM)
Keats claimed physics destroyed beauty. Keats was being a prat

Britain produced some of the world's great physicists but few schoolchildren want to study the subject now. Simon Singh explains why we should worry

Tuesday November 22, 2005
The Guardian

We 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.

But 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.

Britain 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?

You 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 lives.

John 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.

If 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.

Also, 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.

So, 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.

Personally, 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.

A 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.

With 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 slope

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

· Answers: 1c, 2a, 3b, 4d, 5c, 6b Alok Jha

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