The Future of Physics
Debrecen (Hungary), 46 March 1999
Part I: Report to the World Conference on Science
Part II: Physics in the modern world
Recommendations to the physics community
Women in physics
The present Workshop was supported by the UNESCOPhysics Action
Council, the European Physical Society, OMFB, OTKA, MTA and MALÉV. It affirmed the
ongoing importance of physics for its own sake and as part of our culture, as a key
element in increasingly unified science and as an essential contributor to the solution of
environmental and energy problems. The problems faced by physics as an activity and as an
educational subject were discussed and actions for both society as a whole and the physics
community itself were put forward.
A principal function of the Workshop was to submit a report making
recommendations to the UNESCO/ICSU World Conference on Science (WCS), to be held in
Budapest, June, 1999. Nevertheless, a great many important points were raised which are
addressed to the international physics community rather than to the WCS.
Report to the World Conference on Science
The Workshop affirmed three general conclusions:
- The contribution of physics to all aspects of life, material and non-material, will be
essential for the foreseeable future.
- Physics currently faces serious problems in the world. Many of these problems affect
science in general, but a number are specific to physics.
- Actions are needed to assure the continued health of physics research, teaching and
cultural influence. Some form of 'contract' between physicists and the rest of society
will be required.
The Workshop emphasised that the problems physics faces are not related
to the subject matter but to its relations with society and the perceptions of society. By
'physics', we include the physical sciences in general and we affirm the growth of
interdisciplinary fields and the trend for areas such as astronomy, cosmology,
environmental studies and biophysics to become ever more closely linked with all aspects
Why the contribution of physics will
continue to be essential
- Physics is a central part of our
culture and will continue to inspire many people. Physics reveals important universal
truths notwithstanding certain strands of postmodern thought.
- Physics will continue to underpin all
science and technology for the foreseeable future.
- Physics is and will continue to be
essential for analysing and solving urgent environmental and energy problems.
- Physics plays a unique educational rôle:
||Secondary school: It is recognised that other scientific disciplines more
and more require knowledge of physics.
||Undergraduate level: Physics is becoming recognised as providing education
of great value for many careers outside physics such as commerce, banking and medicine.
||Doctoral: PhDs who go into industry are an indispensable by-product of
pure physics research.
- Physics is global and constitutes our best
'anti-Babel'. Generations of physicists of the most diverse political and cultural
backgrounds have collaborated on the basis of shared understanding and shared ideals.
- Physics sets standards of rational thought
in the face of irrationality; it upholds the primacy of observation.
Some general problems currently faced
- Many people feel that science robs
the world of meaning and this deeply affects their attitude to science. Science is felt by
many people to be 'cold' and 'alienating'.
- Modern forms of irrationality are becoming
widespread and sometimes involve outright opposition to scientific attitudes and even
scientific knowledge. There is sometimes an unfortunate, even dangerous, political aspect.
- There is a serious 'authority problem' in
modern life with few people able to make rational judgements as to who or what to believe.
This is reflected in a widespread relativism improperly invoking Einstein. Similarly,
Heisenberg is improperly invoked in promoting the idea that everything is uncertain
anyway. The widespread tendency to adopt conspiracy theories is a potentially dangerous
aspect of this problem. There is a corresponding tendency in academe in the form of social
constructivism; in extreme form this denies that science can progressively approach
- External pressures, sometimes commercial
in nature and often exacerbated by funding problems, lead to damaging conflicts within
subject areas. Damaging conflicts also arise between subject areas, particularly under
pressure of inadequate funding.
- In Europe and other places there is a
squeeze on industrial research as a result of 'short-termism'.
- Science teaching and research face
specific local problems, be it in Eastern Europe or elsewhere.
- It is precisely the nature of many of
these items which makes greater support for science an urgent matter in the modern world.
The Workshop also identified a series of problems specific to physics and a report
discussing these as well as some proposed measures will be published.
The Workshop recommends that the World Conference on Science
organised by UNESCO and ICSU consider the seven important actions below identified by the
Workshop for inclusion in its Science Agenda
Framework for Action. Many of them apply to other branches of science and hence
'physics' could be replaced in many places by 'science'. Some actions, however, are
specific to physics.
The participants expressed the view that the experience of the many
relevant professional bodies should be exploited in implementing the recommendations.
- Promulgate a declaration affirming the
vital importance of basic physical science and the need to protect and support
- Affirm the importance of making a
substantial effort to educate and inform the public . A guideline should be established
recommending that, say, 1% of money spent on research should be made available for public
- Provide substantial support for the
improvement of the teaching of physics throughout the world, at all levels from school to
university. This should involve:
||establishing guidelines for what level of scientific understanding would
be expected at particular stages of school education and how much time should be devoted
to physics teaching at each level;
||monitoring these standards and defending them from external threat;
||encouraging both curricula and teaching methods to adapt to the changing
social and scientific environment.
- promulgate the principle that physics
should be taught by persons who have been trained to become physics teachers. Reliable
information concerning curricula in different countries should be established and made
widely accessible. Support is required for teachers, for example by enhancing their
prestige and providing continuing education and personal development.
- explore ways of establishing a recognised
authoritative and impartial international body, set up under the auspices of the United
Nations or UNESCO, to adjudicate damaging disputes involving scientific issues. Examples
of such disputes are cold fusion and a wide range of environmental issues. The new body
would investigate the extent to which claims are based upon established science or are
simply ungrounded opinion, perhaps influenced by pressure groups This will provide an
authoritative scientific basis for important political decisions.
- establish means for supporting physics
within the new democracies of Europe. This should be done by facilitating international
collaboration and by encouraging the support of physicists within their own countries.
Find ways to support and utilise for mutual benefit the reservoir of advanced expertise in
the former Soviet Union.
- take special measures to ensure the free
movement of scientists. In particular, UNESCO should encourage governments to facilitate
the issuing of visas for scientists if such are required.
The long-term health of physics requires the establishment of
guidelines linking R&D expenditure to gross national product (GNP) at a level
appropriate to the economic state of each country. In addition, there should be guidelines
and standards for coherent and stable national science policies; these policies should be
developed in close consultation with national scientific communities. UNESCO should
establish a committee to make recommendations to governments.
II: Physics in the modern world
The impact of globalization on all our institutions and our value
systems was a common element in many contributions. It is clear that physics will have a
key role to play in studying and solving the global environmental and energy problems the
world will face in the coming century. Globalization was felt in another way: while some
of the problems listed below are particular to specific regions, there was nevertheless
very much common ground in the identification of the general problems faced.
Some problems we face
The Workshop identified many difficulties faced by physics as an
'institution' and as a subject in schools and universities. These difficulties do not
arise from its own subject matter and in particular the conference affirmed that the
subject is certainly not 'worked out.' Nevertheless, physics as an activity and as an
academic subject does face problems and some of the specific points raised were:
- For many students, physics can seem remote
from their everyday concerns. This is true also for the general public. This is in great
measure because physics is abstract and lacks visualizable elements (particularly modern
microscopic physics, with astrophysics an exception). This presents a problem for teachers
and those communicating with the public.
- The fact that physics is essentially
mathematical also presents special problems. While the mathematical language is a main
strength of physics as a discipline, it is a major obstacle in the way of communicating
the meaning of physics to the general public.
- Many school science curriculums are
relatively static and remote from exciting contemporary developments and unrelated to
important contemporary issues such as medicine, energy and the environment. This is in
spite of the direct relevance of physics to all these issues.
- Physicists have acquired a negative image
in some parts of society, not least because of the association with nuclear weapons.
- The public has no clear picture of how
society has benefited from physics and how physics is essential for solving environmental
and energy problems.
- There is no 'physics industry' in the
sense that, for example, there is a 'chemical industry' and a 'biotechnology industry'.
The following two problems are, in part, consequences of this.
- Students in schools are unaware of the
career possibilities enabled by education in physics which exist even in countries in
which high-technology industry is not strong.
- Physics faces problems in universities: in
many places there are fewer students, and many appear to be less able. Sometimes,
multi-disciplinary courses at undergraduate level add to the downward trend in the
academic level of courses. This lowering of standards also occurs as a result of pressure
to 'satisfy customers'. The supply of students to do PhDs is highly susceptible to
economic circumstances and many countries frequently face a serious shortage.
- In Europe and other places there is a
squeeze on industrial research as a result of 'short-termism'.
- In many countries there is a squeeze on
pure research and a growing requirement for researchers to justify their work in terms of
- In many countries there is a serious lack
of competent and enthusiastic physics teachers.
- Physics is particularly subject to
competition from pseudo-science. This is an aspect of the authority problem: the public is
confused as it is confronted with a mixture of information and misinformation through the
media, including the Internet.
Hopeful signs we
should find ways to exploit
The Workshop discussed solutions to these problems and also identified
some hopeful signs. Among the positive points were:
- Politicians at the highest levels are
beginning to find that the prestige arising from national success in pure science is of
value in international negotiations. A related fact is that, in many countries, it is
success in science (along with sport) which most arouses national pride.
- In some countries, and potentially
everywhere, there is a higher than ever interest in popular science. This point has been
emphasized by professionals in the popular science business, and is also clear from the
number of books published. (The simultaneously existing problems remind us that the
'public' is not a single undifferentiated body.)
- Our defence of physics, as well as science
in general, must find ways of exploiting these hopeful points. It was pointed out that
'The resource of the 21st century is knowledge... ' and certainly physical knowledge will
be an important part of this.
the physics community
The Workshop identified a number of areas where action by the physics
community and its friends, including those involved in teaching physics, could be of great
- present a united front, suppress
factional fighting, show respect for different subject areas. (We are vulnerable to
'divide and rule'.)
- deal responsibly with the public, avoid
exaggeration, be honest and should not infringe conventions relating to peer review and
publication. ('Going public' prior to peer review has been very damaging to biology, and
physics has also been harmed by it.)
- assume more responsibility in the issues
of the global environment, sustainable growth or equilibrium and the energy problem.
Physics will have a key role to play in finding an acceptable solution to these problems.
Particular presentations to the Workshop made very clear the seriousness of the situation
and exemplified the contribution of physics.
- facilitate improved means for scientists
to advise (and enter into dialogue with) government and other public organisations.
(Interaction should be both ways and involve the grass roots scientists.)
- find ways of using the expertise of
sociologists to explore in greater depth the cause and nature or anti-scientific feeling;
this could even lead to entente between physics and some part, at least, of the world of
sociology. This could be of great benefit. An urgent problem requiring study is the way
the media treat pseudo-science in modern pluralistic societies.
- find ways to encourage industry to support
long term and curiosity-led research. Governments should be persuaded to encourage,
facilitate or enforce this (through tax laws, etc.).
- participate in research involving both
scientists and economists which shows the long-term influence of scientific research on
GNP. This should be done in a way which includes such things as the contribution of the
training which is an important byproduct of pure research at PhD level.
Many points relating to physics teaching were mentioned, some of which
appear in the 'action' statements to UNESCO. Particular points are:
- Physics teaching must respond to changing
social and also scientific circumstances.
- There is much value in courses which
relate the important findings and perspectives of cosmology etc. to common human needs and
aspirations. This was demonstrated to the Workshop by an account of a general course at
- Teachers should recognise the value of
relating physics teaching to matters of everyday importance, including environmental and
energy issues. Teachers should emphasise that it is everybody's moral duty to have an
elementary understanding of the physics of the threatened global environment. The abstract
aspects of physics should be moderated at the introductory level.
- There are many 'modern physics' topics
which can be made very accessible with imaginative teaching methods involving pupil
activity. A case was put that they can be made more accessible and more relevant than some
traditional topics if they are presented with appropriate explanations.
- Evidently there is a need for continuing
debate concerning the teaching of physics in schools. There is no accepted general
solution to the apparently contradictory requirements of, on the one hand, attracting
talented young people into physics and preparing them for university level studies, and,
on the other hand, teaching physics in a way that does not repel and alienate future
Various points were put forward concerning means to educate and inform
the public, (the subject of a recommended UNESCO action). Points mentioned include:
- the need to professionalize interaction with the media;
- the need for humour;
- demonstrating the openness of science by letting scientific disputes be public;
- the virtue of science laboratories, travelling exhibitions, science and technology
- the importance of the personal and biographical elements in presentations, etc.
Women in physics
- Research should be conducted on
the anomaly that represents the low participation of women in physics in some countries as
compared to others and remedies should be sought. We should do this in the first place
because of the human fulfilment and beneficial productivity which is currently being lost.
There is further potential benefit: the remedy may substantially improve the public status
of physics in general.