Physics key to realising e-vision

July 28, 2000

European visions of an e-commerce-enabled information society may fade away unless Europe addresses serious shortages of physics teachers, according to a leading academic.

Ken Pounds, professor of physics at the University of Leicester, said that the 31st Physics Students Olympiad last week had highlighted how far down the list of education priorities European countries had moved this subject.

Reflecting on the dominance of the Asian teams, Professor Pounds said: "In many western nations, including Britain, there has been a move away from physics in schools, partly as it is perceived to be 'difficult', but undoubtedly because of inadequate teaching provision in many state schools, with a recent Institute of Physics report showing that in only a third of schools was physics taught by a physics graduate."

A five-strong team of physics students from China gained a clean sweep of gold medals in the Olympiad.

The competition, held at Leicester, brought together students from 63 nations - the largest ever entry.

The final table ranked China, Russia and Hungary in the top three places. India, Iran and Taiwan shared joint fourth, with Britain sharing 15th position with the Czech Republic.

Professor Pounds emphasised that he was not criticising the performance of the UK team, who were pitted against "some very bright minds".

But he stressed that the government should take swift action to halt the decline in physics teaching recruitment.

"Physics is still the fundamental science. It describes our world and has led to social advances that include the invention of computers and significant advances in engineering.

"The government and western countries in general need to do much more to attract good physics graduates into teaching by differential salaries, higher professional status and better conditions. It is a very critical situation," he said.

The new economy was desperately short of good graduates in general, in key areas of IT, engineering and physics, he added.

The United States had resolved problems in the short term by attracting thousands of well-qualified professionals from other countries, he said.

"It is a potential crisis. We have much to learn from the attitudes and cultural values of the Asian teams. But we also need to address the issue of reskilling. Universities have a significant role to play in retraining people for industry and education," he said.

Although several thousand students took part in the national competition for the British Olympiad team, relatively few were from the state sector.

Sir Martin Rees, president of the British Physics Olympiad committee, told the finalists: "Physics is an endeavour that links all cultures on earth. But we'd share it with intelligent aliens, if they exist, and if they do, some would be advanced enough to win the Interplanetary Physics Olympiad.

"Indeed they may already have settled key questions that still flummox physicists on earth - grand unified theories and the like.

"Physics is a key to understanding the world. But it's also crucial in changing the world we live in. If someone from the year 1900 were transported by a time machine into the present, they'd be amazed by computers, satellites, mobile phones and so forth - all of which are spin-offs from 20th-century physics.

"We can't predict the 21st century. But I'll make some guesses. There's a real chance that someone of your generation - maybe even one of you - will walk on Mars within 20 years. But there will then be less actual need to travel, even here on earth.

"Within ten years we'll have ready access, wherever we are, to all the books and scientific data in the world.

"These advances will be a real boost to science, because a far wider international community will be able to participate in scientific discovery."

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