This is a guest post from Dave Farmer, an alumnus of the School’s MSci Physics degree programme and, subsequently, the Nottingham Nanoscience group. Now a teacher, Dave is an enthusiastic and engaging advocate for science communication, public engagement and outreach. During his time at Nottingham, he and I had many fun conversations about the best strategies for effective science communication. And Dave most definitely knew how to communicate effectively. As one key example, my son, Fiachra, aged four, watched Dave’s tremendously entertaining pressure-themed Physics Show, which ended in the wonderful spectacle of a massive cloud being formed in our largest lecture theatre via a none-too-subtle combination of liquid nitrogen and water. Five years later, Fiachra still talks about that show…
The post below was published many moons ago at the now-defunct physicsfocus website. I am so happy to finally be able to re-blog it here because I used to cite, link, and reference it frequently. Over to you, Dave…
“I’m a physicist…”
“Wow, you must be clever!”
This an interaction most physicists would admit to having at some point. Physics is difficult. Everyone knows this. We take pride in it. Ours is the most difficult subject, the most worthy, we are the scientific elite. We are confident about our standing in academia. But is this confidence misplaced? If it is, there’s a word for it: arrogance. Another one springs to mind. Hubris. Pride comes before a fall.
Perhaps that is being harsh. It is a good thing to have pride in your work and while many of us might say the sort of things I list above, they are said with tongue heading towards cheek, often over a pint in the pub. And why shouldn’t we? If people want to tell us we’re clever then who are we to disagree?
What is ‘clever’ though? I have good A-levels, in ‘proper’ subjects no less! I have a masters degree in Physics. I’ve (nearly) got a PhD. I must be intelligent, right? I also frequently walk in to things, can’t navigate for toffee and I rely on my fiancee to tell me how old I am. Is that intelligent? I can program complex optical simulations but programming my washing machine remains a mystery.
The point I’m trying to make is that I think our idea of intelligence is outdated. Wayne Rooney, the famous footballer, is not likely to be listed amongst the best brains in Britain anytime soon. He can, however, receive the ball at his feet and in a split second make a decision about what to do with it based on a huge number of variables in the field of play. This is more than just instinct. It is an intelligence, and one that separates the professionals from the amateurs.
People tell me that physics is difficult but the truth is I found it easier than most other subjects. Give me algebra over English any day. Analysing Shakespeare, now that was difficult! I’m betting that most of the physicists reading this would identify with that sentiment to some extent. The fact is I have strengths and weaknesses, like any human being (including you, dear reader.)
Why do I care though? Society has decided that my chosen subject is synonymous with being intelligent; I should just shut up and enjoy the kudos right? Here’s the thing though; physics has an image problem, and its perceived inaccessibility is a big part of it.
We know that young students’ aspirations in physics are tied strongly to whether or not they can identify as a scientist. The recent Aspires report discovered that 80% percent of students surveyed agreed that ‘scientists are brainy’, influencing their view of science as ‘not for me’.
Simply put, because doing physics apparently means you’re intelligent, kids think you have to be ‘brainy’ to start doing physics. If they don’t think they are, and unsurprisingly many don’t, we are putting them off before they even begin. Even before they get a chance to learn and build up their confidence in the subject.
People like physics; it’s riding a wave of popularity. They are interested by it, but they are scared of it. If we are serious about increasing the number and range of people studying physics we need to make it an approachable subject, one people can see themselves studying.
Certainly it takes a lot of hard work to progress to becoming a researcher, and it is not my intention to belittle that. We all started somewhere though. We liked physics, we studied it, we got better at it. It’s all too easy to forget that.
No one is born a physicist. We choose physics, not the other way around. We’re not special. If we keep on pretending we are, we are never going to grow and diversify as a field. We shouldn’t bask in where we are as scientists, however tempting. We should remember where we started as kids.
So how about trying this:
“Wow, you must be clever!”
“Well it’s like anything really. I was interested so I decided to learn some more and here am I! The really neat thing about physics though…”
*Drops megaphone, bruising foot. Falls off soapbox. Gets lost on the way home.*
Image credit: As ever, the wonderful xkcd.