EO Report - Fall 2004

Bernard Khoury
Announcer, Vol. 34, Iss. 3

Enough Is Enough. Or Is It?

How many physicists are enough? How many people should the nation aspire to have with earned Ph.D.’s in physics? How about masters degrees? How about bachelors degrees? How many people should study and learn physics at the college level perhaps without earning a physics bachelor’s degree? How many pre-college students should study physics?

I am quite sure that none of these rhetorical questions has a numerical answer with which all or many of us would agree. But I am equally sure that discussing the questions and their underlying motivation would stimulate valuable discussion about where physics should fit within the education and cultural spectrum of our country.

At the high school level the number of students who take a physics class each year has been increasing over the past decade or more, so that now close to one million high school students study physics each year. While this is surely a large number, especially compared to a decade ago, it still represents less than one-third of the students who graduate from high school each year.

Why do two-thirds of high school students not take a physics course? Since close to half of all high school graduates enter some kind of post-secondary education institution, the fact that only one-third of such graduates takes a physics course leaves a lot more growth opportunity for those who believe that some knowledge and understanding of physics is a prerequisite to becoming a member of an increasingly technological society facing a growing number of social, economic and ethical questions tied to our technologies.

All high school students study math and English and history, and many learn important lessons from these subjects. If all students were to study physics, aren’t we sure that the numbers with a better understanding of the physical and scientific world would increase to the benefit of those students and the larger society.

At the college level, the physics community seems quite elated that the number of students earning bachelor’s degrees has increased over the past three years following about two decades of slow decline. I join those who celebrate this recent growth in the number of physics bachelor’s degrees.

However, I wonder why we seem to set our sights so low. When over one million students earn bachelors degrees each year, why are we excited that the physics portion goes from 0.3% to 0.33%. Shouldn’t we be much more interested in the challenge and the opportunity to double or triple the number of bachelor’s degrees in physics. Wouldn’t the nation, the community of physicists and the individual students be much better off if we were to seek increases by factors of two or three or more rather than factors of 0.1 or 0.2.

While the total number of earned bachelor’s degrees has increased more than 50-60% in the past couple of decades, why does physics seem to celebrate that we are able merely to maintain our numbers in the 4,000 to 4,500 range? After all, as the most fundamental and conceptually powerful of the sciences shouldn’t we strive to involve and envelop more students.

At the doctoral level, the issues are a bit different, since the training is so specialized and so financially and temporally expensive. About half of Ph.D.’s earned in this nation are earned by non-U.S. citizens. Some early evidence, perhaps attributable to the recent visa barriers and immigration impediments, suggests that the percentage of U.S. citizens in our graduate programs is increasing, and that this increase is accompanied by strong quality among those students. The increase in numbers and the concomitant increase in quality certainly deserve celebration, especially if they presage continuing changes in this direction.

The numbers of students who study physics at the secondary and the college levels cry out for dramatic increases especially in light of the fact that our percentages of “market penetration” are embarrassingly low compared to the numbers of high school and college graduates. At the doctoral level the situation is quite different. We likely do not need nor can we afford increases in our doctoral production rates, but we could benefit from a broad examination of the nature of physics doctoral education. For more on this latter question, we can look forward to the work of the joint AAPT-APS Task Force on Doctoral Education in Physics.