Physics: the magic and the myths

Physics is a subject full of magic and myths. As Fyling Hall’s Head of Physics, let me explain.

When I meet someone for the first time, out there in the world beyond school and they ask what I do, I say ‘I’m a teacher’ and they say, ‘oh, that’s interesting, what do you teach?’ and I say, ‘kids’ and they give me a funny look so I say, ‘I teach creativity… through the medium of Physics’. Then I get a blank look so I spell it out, ‘I teach Physics.’. And that’s where the conversation ends as the person sees something over my shoulder or suddenly remembers they’ve left a knife in the fork drawer at home by mistake or they have to get home before one of their frayed laces snap. This is the outside world where Physics is regarded as ‘oh I found that too hard at school’ or ‘that was just too boring for me’ or ‘I never understood any of that’ and even (and I can almost not bring myself to type this) ‘It’s not for girls’ (yes, people still say that). This is the outside world where the numbers taking Physics at A Level have been in sharp decline for over a decade. This is the outside world where boys taking physics outnumber girls, on average 10 to 1 (I’ve seen some estimates closer to 20 to 1). But here at Fyling Hall, things are different.

I made a poster for the lab that has 33 mini posters of successful women in physics. I wanted the girls who came into the lab to see a future pathway for themselves right there. I wanted them to walk into the room and think this is a subject for them and a career for them as much as anyone else. These women are not in the textbooks. I put the poster pack free online, you see it by clicking here.

I’m delighted to hear from other physics teachers who have downloaded it and put it on their lab walls. It’s now in over 50 classrooms around the country.

By the way, our new intake for Physics A Level this year is 6 boys and 5 girls. That’s not only remarkable for bucking the gender trend, it’s also the largest A Level group this year and for a small school that’s quite something. Prior to coming to Fyling Hall I was in a school in the city of Oxford. There I had an intake of just 8, all boys.

So that’s one myth dispelled. What about the other ones? Is Physics hard? That’s a hard one to answer. All A Levels require a massive level of independent study, dedication and practice. The gap between GCSE and A Level is wider than many let on (the gap between A Level and degree is by comparison, minuscule). Many students are not quite mature enough come September for this step up. It takes some a half term to realise and get their act together. 

What does being ‘hard’ or ‘difficult’ mean? If someone asked you to dig a hole with a spade, you could probably manage it. Would it be hard? It would depend on how much effort you put in and how long you stuck at it. This is a bit like what GCSEs are like, you get out what you put in. If you don’t work at it, it’s not particularly very hard but your results may not be of the highest grade. A Level Physics is like digging a deep trench. There are measurements, dimensions on how deep, how wide and how long it must be. The sides must be straight. You don’t get to choose what sort of hole it is this time. It has to be just that bit deeper than you’d naturally want to dig. It’s a bigger job that you thought. That’s true of all A Levels of course and that’s why anyone could say any of them are ‘hard’.

The final myth, that Physics is not interesting. Really? This is where the magic of my title comes in. Understanding how the Universe works, what its made from, where it comes from and where its going can be (as one of my students said recently) a magical mind-bend. Learning that we never actually touch anything (the force field of my hand repels the force field of the table), that particles (and universes) can be created out of nothing or that you age less the faster you go creates an interesting state of mind. Learning about these things also dispels the ignorance of more mundane magic. To know and understand how a mobile phone or computer actually works rather than regard it as a magical device is not only enlightening and liberating, it’s essential for a new generation to understand. We live in an advanced technological society where everything we do depends upon advance technology which so very few know anything about. To become one of those who can not only drive our civilisation forward but perhaps even save it, is something wonderful indeed.

If Physics differs from other subjects, if it differs from the other sciences it is that it is solely about problem solving. Students are amazed that the exam board give them a six page booklet with every formula on it. The reason is that it’s not a memory test. It’s about applying the skills to solve real world problems, and the world certainly has plenty of those. 

Ayd Instone, Head of Physics