Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Physics fades from UK classrooms

Quite independently, Clifford discusses the very same issue - physics at British schools.

2005 is the international year of physics, so let me offer you some "optimistic" news - namely news about the intellectually degenerating British society.

The number of British pupils who took physics dropped by 40 percent in the last 20 years. In the last 10 years, the number of UK physics departments dropped by 30 percent. And the situation will become even worse as the current generation of teachers will retire and be replaced by mostly female young teachers who usually don't like physics, Alexandra Blair predicts in The Times.

Female science teachers who dominate among teachers heavily prefer biology (60% of biology students are female) over physics (20% of physics students are female), the findings published by University of Buckingham also show. Also, in

  • GCSE (British high school exams)

they have abandoned Newton, Einstein, the periodic table, and hard sciences in general - and replaced them with soft "sciences" such as "benefits of healthy eating and benefits of genetic engineering" which occured because one science is enough according to the new rules and the sentence "healthy eating is healthy" is apparently another science just like physics.

The modified curriculum in 1988 may be blamed for all these changes. Responsible scientists at Harvard and elsewhere must ask whether the changes being prepared for the Harvard curriculum are really going in a different direction than the disastrous British changes in 1988. Recall that the new curriculum proposed for Harvard also allows the students to avoid hard sciences altogether and pick only 3 pieces of soft stuff that has been added to the same group as "science and technology" in the proposed distributional requirements.

Most of them will probably choose the subjects Apples are healthy, Global warming is a threat, and Sexes are equal, as soon as the corresponding "scientific" courses are listed (and maybe they already are listed). ;-)

Back to Great Britain. More generally, pupils tend to study subjects that fit their aptitudes which unfortunately but not surprisingly means that they are refocusing from sciences as well as languages and geography to

such as religious indoctrination, gyms, and citizenship that require minimal talents and minimal effort. Well, soft subjects have been soaring for quite some time. It's also becoming a standard that

in your exam is enough for the A* "superman" grade. Then it can't be surprising that the grades are getting better despite a gradual collapse of the intellectual skills of the British students. If it makes you happier, it is not just physics and sciences that evaporate; foreign languages such as French and German dropped by 15 percent in one year.

This may be a beginning of another medieval, postmodern era in which people know how to act as journalists, but they have no idea what to write about; they believe that healthy eating is important, but they have no idea about the existence of cells; they believe that global warming is dangerous but they have no idea about physics of the atmosphere; they believe that the sexes don't differ in their intellectual passions at all and it is consistent with all of their knowledge of science and history because they have no idea who Einstein, Newton, Darwin, and maybe even Mozart were.

A special clarification for Rhiannon: the previous sentence does not quite argue that the very existence of the great male scientists *proves* something. But still, the existence of a certain "signal" that does not seem to disappear, even after a century of equal opportunities, indicates that the simplest and most "symmetric" theories about the intellectual passions are likely to contradict the available data. And what I wanted to say is that it is much easier to ignore this signal for someone who is ignorant about science and its history. Please treat these statements of mine rationally and as cold and unemotional statistical assertions. Happy Thanksgiving.


  1. Dear Lumos,

    In the U.K. science attitudes have changed dramatically, and physics as you say is on the way out. Each year now 4% fewer people study it, which adds up. The decline rate was not so bad 20 years ago when it started.

    It coincides with the major first wave of string theory in 1985, but I'm not blaming string theory completely. I do have a bit of a feel for what is happening.

    In November 1964 the BBC filmed Feynman's lectures on the "Character of Physical Law" and broadcast them on BBC2 in 1965, the year the BBC1 programme "Tomorrow's World" began, which was scrapped earlier this year.

    I got invited to see the recording of the 21st anniversary edition of that program in May 1986, when I was 14. I wrote to them about January, and was incorporated in the script doing something silly. One week before it was recorded, Chernobyl blew up.

    They changed the ending of the program and the entire slant on nuclear energy. A professor in the studio audience attacked the British nuclear industry for refusing to properly fund his wave power invention.

    I think the combination of increasing abstruse mathematical physics with increasing resentment over pro-nuclear propaganda, and badly handled media coverage of Chernobyl and other physics applications has been the turn off.

    Physics is no longer celebrated, it is deplored here by the majority. I don't like the attitude of mainstream physics. I thought university would be more open but really nobody seemed interested in fundamental stuff, just applications and technology. They just view fundamental stuff as something you do as undergraduate to pass exams so you can go on to technology. Nobody seems to care, or if they do, they're crackpot with personal belief systems in untestable ideas.

    No longer will the BBC seriously try to present fundamental physics. They have to hype up the subject so much you see Hawking flying through blackholes in his wheelchair.

    I did point out the decline in U.K. physics in a page leader piece for Electronics World mag around October or November 2003, and on Peter Woit's blog this summer. What happens in the U.K. in physics education may affect the U.S. also, although you have more sensible views on nuclear energy and hold physics with greater esteem, despite ST problem

    Best wishes,

  2. Dear Nigel,

    everything OK, except if you really think that this development is caused by string theory, you don't seem to have the credentials to criticize anyone's thinking.

    The development is caused by the curriculum change (loosening) in 1988, and string theory definitely makes physics more attractive, not less, much like Hawking flying through wormholes.

    Peter Woit is a part of the broader problem of physics - and, more generally, he contributes to the current over-reproduction of science-haters - but he is definitely not connected with the particular problem of the UK high school education.

    All the best

  3. Dear Lumos,

    String theory is not to blame for the major problem, which is down to the crazy presentation of nuclear power in the 50s as totally clean with electricity too cheap to meter.

    String theory would be the best idea in the world if it did what it says on the box. It would force the world to confront the fact that extremely advanced mathematics does successfully solve everything.

    Also, Danny Ross Lunsford is upset that his 6-dimensional unification of Maxwell's equations and general relativity, which has advantages over the Kaluza-Klein 5-dimensional unification, is being suppressed by,which deleted it after it was published in Int. J. Theor. Phys., v 43 (2004), No. 1, pp.161-177. Perhaps you should nominate Lunsford as a scholar who is being victimised by the "authorities" in science?

    Is Lunsford a science hater like Woit and the victims of Chernobyl? Or can you see that there is a communication problem visible, where arrogance leads to bogus claims. The U.S. A.E.C. Rasmussen study of 1975 found the chance of a nuclear disaster was insignificant, but ignored the Russian cheapskating design. Then they got discredited. Scientists should be more careful.

    Best wishes,

  4. Come on, Nigel, presentations of nuclear energy in the 1950s also have nothing to do with the decrease of British physics in the 1990s.

    Nuclear energy may seem less clean than it did 50 years ago. I still think it is essentially clean. The thermonuclear power may be cleaner if it is ever realized in practice.

    But there are hundreds of other subfields in physics.

  5. Dear Lumos,

    I was just saying that the leading theory is string theory, at the top of everything else.

    Chrnobyl put the public off nuclear physics in the U.K., since we got heavy fallout in Cumbria and Wales, which led to a million sheep or whatever being embargoed due to Cs-137 in the meat, for about 4 years until the fallout was down below grass root level. The media is thick as you say, and blame nuclear power generally for Chernobyl, and that smears physics. The media also associates physics with nuclear weapons.

    Nuclear fusion produces longer-lived waste than fission, since it does so by neutron capture in the containment materials. So the whole reactor becomes active, with Fe-55 (2.7 years half life), cobalt-60 (5.3 years half life) and so on from impurities in steel. You can remove most fission product waste from a fission reactor and concentrate it for burial during reprocessing. The high energy fusion neutrons in a fusion reactor would make the entire reactor radioactive and hazardous to work in. We already know from Chernobyl that silicon electronics break down rapidly in intense radiation areas. Clean nuclear fusion is not a pipedream however, because we have the sun!

    Quantoken pointed out solar cells are getting cheaper. That's the safest way to get fusion power, not magnetically confined plasma.

    Best wishes,

  6. Chernobyl directly killed only 60 people or so, and even the indirect impact was smaller by several orders of magnitude than what has been said for decades.

    String theory is (probably) above all other theories in the structure of physics ideas, but it does not mean that it is on top of other fields of physics sociologically. String theory is just a small part of what is done in physics. There are many other fields of physics and physicists are essentially equal to each other.

    It is not even true that everything besides string theory is applied. There is also a lot of other fundamental research that has no direct applications and that is driven by our desire to understand things. Please understand that the world is very complex and big.

    All the best

  7. Lubos:
    Nuclear energy, be it fission or fusion reactions, are NOT clean. Physicists want to claim that nuclear energy is clean because they ONLY consider the normal physics processes during safe production of nuclear energy.

    The fact is you need to consider every thing, you need to consider the mining, extraction and production of nuclear material from natural source. All these activities, as well as the production of equipments needed for these activities, burns fossil fuels, and causes all sorts of polutions. You need to consider disposition of the by-products. Where you put all the excessive U-238, called depleted Uranium, since they are all radioactive? And you have to consider the high cost of disposition of the waste product, they are highly radioactive and no one wants them in their backyard.

    We have one used reactor in a local nuclear power station that needs to be disposed. They put huge amount of concrete in to solidify everything into one piece of 2000 tons, and made up a plan to try to transport it to a dump site in Virginia. They can't go through the land so they need to ship it across the ocean through the south tip of the South America. But they need to first built a railway to transport it to the sea port. They need to do this and that and get all sorts of permissions. At the end of day, after almost 10 years and costing 200 millon dollars, they eventually abandoned the plan and the reactor is still sitting on its original site.

    And you need to factor in the chances that a nuclear reactor accident, and the serious consequences. It happened in America, it happened in Russia. It could happen again.

    Do you know what is the worst nuclear disaster that had happened on American soil? You probably have no idea because main stream media never talked about it. No it is NOT Three Mile Island. It doesn't even have anything to do with reactors. It happened near a mine for nuclear materials. Huge amount of radioactivity contaminated water leaked out. The end result is over 2 million sheeps were killed. The sheeps belonged to the Native Americans so they get away with covering it all up.

  8. Dear Quantoken,

    You say the worst nuclear problems are from natural radioactivity in mines leaking out: " It happened near a mine for nuclear materials."

    The key thing is that natural background radiation is much higher than nuclear pollution. Edward Teller, who died recently, said if antinuclear protestors were genuine they'd stop people climbing mountains because of the higher cosmic radiation with altitude, and also stop caving underground dur to radon-222 gas that causes lung cancer.

    If you talk to anti-nuclear journalists, they think you're lying when you tell then Enrico Fermi was not the first and that nuclear reactors ran automatically in uranium ore at Oklo in Gabon, West Africa, 1,700,000,000 years ago. See

    The reason is the half-life of U-235 is smaller than U-238, so long ago you could have virtually made a nuclear bomb using unenriched natural uranium. The fact that the waste was contained in geology that was fossilised means people have been studying since 1972 the containment of nuclear waste over 1,700 million years. Anti-nuclear media say "nobody knows" what will happen to waste in 100 years because nuclear power is so recent. They are just crackpots.

    I agree with you, Quantoken, that natural radiation is dangerous, but only alpha radiation to the lungs is really dangerous at low dose rates, such as from breathing radon gas. Gamma radiation is weakly ionising and DNA protein P53 repairs breaks as they occur if the dose rate is up to about 10 times natural background. Since nuclear power increases background by only 1%, it simply isn't dangerous. The only data showing cancer at low dose rates from penetrating, low-LET radiation (gamma for instance) is from 1950s mice, because they don't have an efficient P53 DNA repair mechanism. Tragically, P53 was only discovered in 1977 and is was only understood in the 1990s. Nobody wants to know this, as the linear effects model of radiation cancer risks is orthodoxy, like M-theorists at suppressing Lunsford's peer-reviewed 6-dimensions.

    Best wishes,

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. Tony Smith’s CERN document server, EXT-2004-031, uses the Lie algebra E6 to avoid 1-1 boson-fermion supersymmetry:

    ‘As usually formulated string theory works in 26 dimensions, but deals only with bosons … Superstring theory as usually formulated introduces fermions through a 1-1 supersymmetry between fermions and bosons, resulting in a reduction of spacetime dimensions from 26 to 10. The purpose of this paper is to construct … using the structure of E6 to build a string theory without 1-1 supersymmetry that nevertheless describes gravity and the Standard Model…’

    I wonder why this sort of work is excluded by the string theorists who censor arXiv? Could it be that THEY are the paranoid ones?

    Peter Woit says he doesn’t like the claims made for the Calabi-Yau manifold being beautiful, and that 11-d supergravity doesn’t predict anything testable. If there is useful science in M-theory, mainstream string theorists have had a decade to find it! More likely, it’s a dead end, like Kelvin’s vortex atom or Maxwell’s elastic aether. Just because Kelvin and Maxwell were top mathematicians as well as physicists, did not make their speculations correct.

    String theorists should study Kelvin’s vortex atom and Maxwell’s aether to see the fate of paranoia-type defence of crackpotism. Science can’t cover up the ineptitude of famous people endlessly.

  11. How exactly does knowing who Einstein et al were force one to abandon the belief that the sexes don't differ in their intellectual passions? Is that what you are saying?

  12. Well, everyone can believe whatever he or she wants, despite any amount of evidence that becomes available.

    For example, you can even believe that a cat called Jesus, as your name indicates. ;-)

    I am not predicting that you will abandon such beliefs that seem to contradict the available data. I would be foolish to say so because stupidity is, of course, infinite. I am just saying that such beliefs are irrational.

  13. That's a very interesting article. It is extremely interesting that there is data to support the idea that male and female children respond differently to different kinds of stimuli from day 1 - I was not aware that such data existed.

    I think there are still a couple of holes in your argument worth pointing out though.

    The first is that differences in the way adult male and female brains work are a long way from being sensibly described as inherent. You would have to redesign society and then find the same general data trends to make that claim.

    The second is that intellectual ability is not an obvious function of the different parts of the brain used in a given task, once the task is a real one and not designed by some testmaker. What I mean by this is that progress in scientific research is not necessarily correlated by gender to how well one can think about objects rotating in three dimensions, for example. Such research calls on all kinds of abilities.

    The third point is that even if it were true that you could analyse (real) intellectual ability in the sciences and find women lacking, it would not follow that their intellectual passions were not in the sciences.

    Fourthly, even if it were true that your data confirmed differences in intellectual ability and leaning between the sexes, you would have to correct somehow for the differences in expectations of society for men and women and what that means for who goes into what field.

    And lastly, your statement that knowing who Einstein et al were would be inconsistent with believing that there are no differences in intellectual passions between the sexes is not the same as stating that it is irrational to believe that there are no such innate differences when presented with modern data about the way male and female brains work. Even if you had complete and incontrovertible data about innate differences in (1) the way male and female brains work, (2) their resulting intellectual abilities and (3) the resulting intellectual passions of men and women, all of this data would be in the form of bell curves with the median at different points for men and women. Which means that people on the extremes (like Einstein) are not useful examples for proving your point.

    I don't think that this attitude constitutes holding on to an irrational belief in the face of all available data. I think both that the data is incomplete to justify your statement that men and women have different intellectual passions, and that even were it complete you would need more for the stronger (and only meaningful) statement that these differences are inherent. Further, your implication that knowing who Newton and Einstein were would force one to conclude so is quite groundless, in my opinion.

    I realise that these comments were in closing to a post on a different topic, but don't think they should go unchallenged.

    The name catcalledjesus has to do with a feline by the name of jesus, and not a feline calling jesus, btw. It also has nothing to do with my beliefs, irrational or otherwise.

    I have just seen the clarification you added to your post. Thank you. I don't think it's accurate to talk about a century of equal opportunities, or to argue that not having seen a female "Einstein" in that time is a signal that any assertions about intellectual working, ability or passions hold independently of society. It's also worth noting that names like Einstein's and Newton's don't pepper modern physics either - any of today's developments that will have equivalently far-reaching consequences will not be due to one great man (or woman) but will represent a far more collective effort than has ever been the case in the past. I don't think that is the place to look for a signal whose presence or absence would contradict a "symmetric" model of male and female intelligence.

  14. Nigel: please accept my apologies for my having erased your comment about Lunsford's ingenious work. You have typed some very long URLs that destroyed the layout of the page when viewed separately from the rest of the blog. Please, everyone, never include strings without spaces that are longer than 60 characters or so. If you know how to fix the bug of the template so that it treats long string in a more intelligent way, let me know.


    What you write, catcalledjesus, is mostly sane and fine. Except for your ideas to "redesign the society". I think we have already redesigned the society a lot - by codifying the equality of all people in all possible respects - and new steps reshaping the society even more are still taking place. Is not it enough? Do you want the men to learn how to become pregnant? That will be a rather difficult task.

    When I talk about men, women, and their cognitive differences, I talk about the real men and women whose lifes are correlated with various biological differences and differences in their natural role in the society. All these things are "inherent". The fact that women normally become pregnant more often than men is "inherent", too. ;-)

    I don't quite follow how you want to separate these inherent things from the even "more inherent" characteristics. You could prevent women from being pregnant - if you view this change of their state as "noise" in your experiments. Then you could stop their menstruation and puberty or anything else - including the hormones affecting the embryos. But then we would no longer be talking about "women".

    Men and women (and male and female mammals in general) have always played slightly different roles in the society and this fact has been imprinted into the genes and it has shaped the natural selection and other processes. On the other hand, these imprinted differences also influence the behavior in other contexts, and so forth. All these things are causally and logically connected.

    It is impossible to separate them, and if you propose that scientific results will only have a value after the whole society is "redesigned" so that a random half of the current laws (and initial conditions) of nature is rejected and replaced by laws from a different universe, then you are not talking about the real world at all.

    Men and women may have the exactly same kind of intellectual passions in some different Universe within the multiverse, if there exists any multiverse at all ;-), but I am personally more interested in this real Universe we see around. In this real world, men and women differ.

    Attempts to deny this fact are analogous to attempts to deny the conservation of the electric charge.

    Your comments about modern science being more collective than the classical pioneering works in the past may be interesting, but - regardless whether we care or not - they do not change anything about the signal. On the contrary. For example, after 1963, all physics and chemistry Nobel prizes have been given to males. Something like 200:0 is the recent score.

    If I were dishonest, I could jokingly argue that the introduction of political correctness and feminism in the 1960s has, according to the available data, strongly diminished the chances of women at the top of these fields.

    Of course, the real reason is completely different. The main real reason is that current science is even more difficult than it used to be, and therefore the differences in the Gaussian tails in those two different statistical distributions have an even bigger impact than they had in the first 60 years of the 20th century in which women have received 9 Nobel prizes for physics and chemistry, instead of 0 since 1964 incl.

    Once again, please, these statistical comments have nothing to do with you or any other individual person. Only the anthropic people may believe that "I" must necessarily be near the average in all respects. Also, you can get the Nobel prize or anything else. I know several female candidates around, and I hope that one of them will get it.

    The fact is that you have almost certainly nothing to do with the statistical average women either. But I just feel it's important for you and all of us to treat all these things rationally.

    And I also think that understanding these issues as they are is critically important for shaping our expectations and for designing wise policies that affect the whole society. Redesigning the whole society according to a hypothesis that is completely irrational - or at least unjustified and untested - is not a good idea, and similar acts of megalomanic social engineering have already been proved dangerous or at least counterproductive many times.

    Happy Turkey

  15. Dear Lumos,

    "... please accept my apologies for my having erased your comment about Lunsford's ingenious work. You have typed some very long URLs..."

    Thank you for saying something nice about Lunsford. The media always assumes radical ideas are treated with tolerance or awe in science, and the media is wrong.

    If anyone wants to check the Lunsford paper, CLICK HERE, it is a PDF file on CERN doc server:

    "EXT-2003-090" on CERN database: . You need to print it out not view it on screen as it isn't in scalable PDF type, but it prints out nicely. Or see the published version: Int. J. Theor. Phys. 43 (2004) no. 1, pp.161-77.

    Best wishes,