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The joy of physics in Exeter

Tuesday, November 29, 2016 2:50
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By Brian Clegg


This is primarily to give a thank-you to those involved in organising the Festival of Physics in Exeter on Saturday. But also to reflect on what such an event does so well.

In a recent editorial for the newsletter of the Popular Science book review site, I said:

I suspect you’ll agree with me that science isn’t boring – yet we’ve all got plenty of friends who turn off the moment that science is mentioned. I’d suggest that two of the reasons for this is that we teach science back to front, and we forget the importance of narrative. 

When I talk at schools to children under 13 or so, they pretty well all love science. But something horrible happens after a couple of years at secondary school. It becomes a drag. I think this is because we teach secondary science with entirely the wrong result in mind. We teach it as if we are preparing them to be scientists. This means starting by building up the basics, step by step, in a systematic fashion. I’m almost asleep already. Of course this is essential for those who will study science at a higher level – and can be caught up in a couple of weeks by anyone who does. But it misses such a huge opportunity. 

If, instead, we taught the interesting bits and the applications – real, modern science, not Victorian basics, far more of the students would stay interested. Of course they couldn’t, for instance, do the maths required to handle the field equations of relativity – but there is no reason why we can’t teach the concepts of the general theory and really grab their attention with everything from GPS to time machines. 

That second aspect of narrative also ties into what the science education is for. If, like popular science, our science lessons gave context, talked about the people involved in the science and the history as well as the applications, there is far more opportunity for storytelling. And that’s how people are wired to learn. Suddenly, the science becomes much more accessible. 

I’m not saying it’s a universal panacea. But if we taught science to give people the kind of interest and grasp that popular science readers have, rather than as trainee scientists, I think we could dismiss that ‘boring’ myth forever.

I had a reader query whether this was really true – had I checked out a modern science curriculum? Surely it wasn’t like this anymore? So I took a look at the AQA GCSE physics curriculum and, unfortunately there is still a fair amount of truth in my assertion. The requirements were very much about getting the basics of Victorian physics. Neither ‘relativity’ nor ‘quantum’ appeared anywhere in the document.

That means there’s so much to be gained when a body like the Institute of Physics puts on event like Saturday’s with lots of interesting material and fun topics for all ages. The audience was a brilliant mix from children through to pensioners – and I hope you will watch out for similar opportunities coming your way (there’s apparently one in Bristol next March).

I don’t know if we can change the nature of school science, because it’s not about tweaking the curriculum, it’s about a fundamental change in what school science education is for. And that could only come from government. But I do know that events like the Festival of Physics go a good way to countering any negatives that might emerge from the curriculum – so let’s have even more!

Now Appearing is the blog of science writer Brian Clegg (, author of Inflight Science, Before the Big Bang and The God Effect.


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