Fundamental physics exerts pull

March 15, 1996

Fundamental physics may be out of favour when it comes to research funding but a survey of students says the topic has a major influence on young people deciding to do physics at undergraduate level.

The study, carried out by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, involved asking undergraduate physics students to list in order of preference three topics out of a total of 14. In all 1,700 students in 42 departments responded to the survey. Sixty-five per cent of the students listed relativity and gravitation in the top three; 55 per cent cited astronomy and the space sciences; 43 per cent quantum theory and other theoretical physics and 34 per cent quoted elementary particle physics.

PPARC says that, when compared to a similar study carried out by the Institute of Physics in 1984, the latest results show that the influence of fundamental physics on young people has increased. There has been a corresponding reduction for most other topics, especially studies of the nucleus, nuclear energy and electronics.

Teachers and school physics remain, as in 1984, highly influential. Despite concerns that the style and quality of teaching at GCSE and A level put students off, 62 per cent of those surveyed cited teachers as having most influence. Other factors include television (51 per cent) and popular books on science (48 per cent) .

Science fiction influenced 10 per cent of students while Star Trek beamed in a warping great 7 per cent.

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