If You Thought Science Was Dull, Think Again

The Evening Standard (London, England), August 30, 2005 | Go to article overview

If You Thought Science Was Dull, Think Again


Byline: SARAH RICHARDSON

With employers crying out for graduates with a scientific degree, there has never been a better time to study the subject, says Sarah Richardson

CAITLIN Watson is happy to admit that science has an image problem. "If I go to a party and say 'I'm a physicist', it's usually the kiss of death," she smiles. "Yet the world of physics is something that affects us every day; it's crucial to the technological advancements that play a part in all our lives."

As programme manager of Einstein Year at the Institute of Physics, Caitlin is working to change our perceptions.

The UN General Assembly has declared 2005 the "International Year of Physics'' and Einstein Year is part of a drive by the international science community to raise awareness of physics worldwide.

"It's about making physics and science socially acceptable," Caitlin adds.

"We're trying to get rid of some of those negative knee-jerk reactions to physics by changing people's preconceptions."

What science courses offer students is a real chance to make a difference.

From developing a cure for cancer to harnessing alternative forms of energy or designing computer games, science graduates can look forward to creative, innovative careers. They are the driving force behind the world's pharmaceutical, defence and IT industries, for example, and yet studying science and technology at university has traditionally been a less popular choice in the UK than arts and humanities.

In fact the Confederation of British Industry is getting seriously worried about the flight from science, languages and maths in favour of media studies and psychology, and the effect this may have on the British economy.

Some see the decline in the number of candidates taking sciences as one consequence of the obsession with exam grades. Students are likely to gravitate to the courses they think will give them an advantage and at the moment an A-grade is an A-grade when it comes to university entrance, whether it is in media studies or maths.

And so they shy away from subjects they perceive to be "hard".

Then there's the problem of teacher shortages. "Our research shows that someone who has studied science is more than 10 per cent less likely to go on to become a teacher than a graduate from other subjects," says Arnaud Chevalier of the Centre for Economic Performance. "This is almost entirely because a science degree opens up so many other well-paid career options."

In an increasingly competitive graduate job market, science graduate salaries continue to rise and strong science candidates remain in demand from employers in all sectors - including financial services, consultancy and the media - for their analytical skills and creativity. By breaking the mould you might just be securing a fascinating future.

As part of his postgraduate research, biological sciences graduate Alex Weir has captured crows on the South Pacific Island of New Caledonia and studied them as they make hooks from twigs to skewer maggots. The winner of the 2005 Science Graduate of the Year Award organised by The Royal Institution (RI) and L'Oreal, Alex's groundbreaking research at the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford may shed light on the evolution of our own tool-making skills, as well as revealing whether a bird is capable of a sort of "reasoning"

"Creative tool-making is considered a hallmark of human intelligence, and one of the crucial factors that allows us to dominate the world today," he explains. "Although some other animals use tools, these are generally very basic, and even chimpanzees show little modification of primary materials when making tools.

"However, within the past 10 years a species of crow unique to New Caledonia has been seen making highly sophisticated tools such as cutting out probes from leaves. I've attempted to discover whether these crows 'understand' what they are doing - is it just habit or does it involve intelligence? …

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