Hilary considers some of the reasons behind the surging interest in science

It’s pretty hard to find someone who hasn’t at least heard of the sitcom The Big Bang Theory, unless they have been living under a rock for the past five years. In the US it pulls in an audience of over 15 million, and the show is also taking Britain by storm with over 1.4 million UK viewers tuning into E4 when the show returned this summer for its fifth season. Featuring four stereotypical scientists (two experimental theoretical physicists, an engineer and an astrophysicist) The Big Bang Theory celebrates everything ‘nerdy’, with big players in the world of science making guest appearances on the show, including astrophysicist Dr George Smoot and theoretical physicist Dr Brian Greene and Professor Hawking. The science isn’t bungled either. TV fact-checker David Saltzberg has been the science consultant for every season of the show, and is responsible for ensuring that all the science is accurate – right down to details like the equations written on the white boards. With an impressive resume including a PhD in Physics, a post-doc at CERN and teaching a course at UCLA, Saltzberg is an expert at what he does. Scientific roots can even be found in the cast with actress Mayim Bialike, who plays Amy Farrah Fowler, having a Ph.D. in neuroscience.

So, what impact does the popularity of a show like this have on real life science?

As recently as 2005, physics was considered a ‘vulnerable’ subject with poor uptake. This year however, the Institute of Physics has revealed that physics is now in the top ten most popular subjects – an accolade it hasn’t been able to claim since 2002.  There has been an increase in the number of students taking A-level physics for the fifth year in a row, and it seems that the government’s target of 35,000 students entering physics A-level by 2014 will be achieved well in advance. Experts at the Institute of Physics have been taken aback by the dramatic increase, attributing the rise to a number of factors. Its spokesman Joe Winters, said: “The rise in popularity of physics appears to be due to a range of factors, including Brian [Cox]’s public success, the might of the Large Hadron Collider and, we’re sure, the popularity of shows like The Big Bang Theory.” Furthermore, Alex Cheung, editor of physics.org asserts that “There’s no doubt that TV has […] played a role” and  millions of people throughout the UK tune into Brian Cox’s popular science documentaries on the BBC, leading the president of the Institute of Physics to talk about the “Cox effect”.

While TV shows certainly have huge potential for influence with their varied and global audiences, the real world must have contributed to this dramatic re-enlivenment in public interest in science. It’s been a pretty big year for physics, and this summer has seen some amazing scientific achievements: the Mars Rover landing and the discovery of the Higgs Boson “God particle” are just two monumental events which will leave a significant mark on history. Additionally, in an economic environment where job-seeking is a pretty tough undertaking, students may be looking towards the sciences as a good means to ensure employment. Dr Neil Bentley, deputy director-general of the Confederation of British Industry has identified the demand for science qualified employees in the UK: “a skills gap emerging in this area with over 40% of companies saying they are having difficulty recruiting people with science, technology, engineering and maths skills.” So physics is fun, and also a sensible option.

What is crucial now is that this science enthusiasm is maintained.  The director for the Campaign for Science and Engineering, Imran Khan warns us not to get too comfortable: “Despite physics breaking into the top 10 A-levels subjects this year, we’ve only just got back to 2002 levels in terms of entries. An international comparison of 24 countries showed that England, Wales, and Northern Ireland were the only ones in which fewer than 20% of students study maths post-16. We desperately need to keep up the momentum.”


Hilary Boden

Image by NASAblueshift