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Physics is popular again, sort of

By Margaret Harris

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Today is the day when hundreds of thousands of students across England, Wales and Northern Ireland receive the results of their A-level exams, which will determine where (and whether) they go to university in the coming academic year. The subsequent flood of exam statistics will keep education-policy experts busy for the next few days, but it’s already emerged that the number of students taking the physics A-level exam has gone up, rising 6.1% since 2010 and 19.6% over the past five years.

This is welcome news, and it’s the inspiration behind this week’s Facebook poll, which asks:

What is the main benefit of studying physics at university?

As usual, you can cast your vote on our Facebook page.

Now, as for the reasons behind the increase in physics A-level students, several commentators have cited the improving image of physics in pop culture, as evidenced by television shows like Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe and the US comedy The Big Bang Theory. Even the IOP’s president, Peter Knight, has suggested that the “Brian Cox effect” and publicity surrounding CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) may have helped propel physics back into the list of the 10 most popular A-level subjects for the first time since 2002.

But with all due respect to Knight, I’m personally dubious about the influence of pop culture in this case. The UK’s education system forces students to specialize early, so the current crop of A-level students will have begun narrowing down their options at least three years ago. Back then, The Big Bang Theory had only been on UK television for a few months, the LHC was still under construction and the two Wonders programmes were but gleams in Cox’s eye. So it’ll be a few years before we’ll know the true extent of their impact.

I’d place more weight on the second half of Knight’s statement, in which he noted that “Many students are also responding to calls from university leaders, businesses and the government to choose subjects which will provide the skills our country needs.” Campaigns by all these groups to boost science have been going on for years, and economic uncertainty (which, in the UK, dates back to 2007, when the bank Northern Rock collapsed) has probably made students more receptive to them. It’s worth noting that the last time the UK had so many physics students was in 2002, when the world economy was still recovering from the dot-com bust.

Anyway, regardless of the reasons behind physics’ new-found semi-popularity, we wish all students luck with their results – and those who plan to continue their physics education at university should watch this space next week, when we’ll discuss your views on the benefits of studying physics.

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