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Headlines Published on 26 January 2005

Title Let’s hear it for physics!

To mark the Year of Physics 2005, scientific societies worldwide are celebrating 100 years since Albert Einstein first published his ideas on relativity and more. The Year got underway with a major UN-hosted conference and a cover story in the UN’s natural sciences newsletter on the current status and future role of physics in society. 

Calculus-based fields, such as physics and mathematics, have lost out to science (and other) subjects perceived to be easier and with better prospects. © PhotoDisc
Calculus-based fields, such as physics and mathematics, have lost out to science (and other) subjects perceived to be easier and with better prospects.
© PhotoDisc

The World Year of Physics is a United Nations-backed international celebration of this very important natural science. The hundreds of events organised during the year will showcase physics and its position in the coming millennium, but will also mark 100 years since the Swiss genius Einstein’s pioneering contributions to the discipline.

The attention that the Year will draw could not come at a better time for the physics community, as studies show that the numbers of graduates continue to drop in both the EU and in other major education centres for science, such as the USA. Despite a lack of comparable data, the UN’s Education, Science and Culture Organisation (UNESCO) notes in its newsletter A World of Science, “The available statistics do tend to show that the percentage of physics majors out of total university enrolments remains low” around the world.

According to UNESCO, the main organiser of events to mark the Year, the aim of the programme will, therefore, focus on the ties between physics and such issues as economic development, sustainable development, health, energy and the environment. It will also examine the gender imbalance in physics and the future of physics education.

Some good news
The good news, reports A World of Science, is that teaching methods are evolving and, increasingly, the accent is being put on activity-based tuition which engages students in the learning process. “Not only are there signs that students are enjoying physics more than before, but recent studies also show a marked improvement in student performance when interactive teaching methods are used,” it states.

The number of physics graduates in Europe shrunk by some 15% between the years 1998 and 2002, according to the European Physical Society’s MAPS (Mapping Physics Students Across Europe) study presented to the European Commission at the ‘Europe Needs More Scientists!’ conference in April 2004. Half of the 25 European countries surveyed – including most of the EU members plus several others – recorded a drop in numbers. Yet, according to the expert’s final report, Europe needs around 500 000 more scientists in all fields.

The situation is not that much better in the United States, reports the UN. After a downhill slide spanning more than 20 years, the number of bachelor degrees in physics started picking up again – but still rank far below more popular sciences, such as engineering, psychology and biology. The gender imbalance has not improved much either. It was only in 2001 that the number of women physics undergraduates in the USA topped 20%.

Source:  UNESCO and EU sources

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More information:

  • A World of Science (January 2005 Newsletter, UNESCO) PDF icon [1.65 Mb]

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