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I have often thought that we just don’t get enough science in our popular culture. Perhaps people would understand and be more supportive of science, for example, if we had a regular TV soap opera based around the life and work of scientists.

So I feel a little vindicated by the news reports that there is a current resurgence of interest in physics among A-level and university students in the UK. And  The Big Bang Theory, a California-based comedy that follows two young physicists, is being suggested as an important factor (see Big Bang Theory fuels physics boom).

Some students are saying as much:

Tom Whitmore, 15, from Brighton, acknowledged that Big Bang Theory had contributed to his decision, with a number of classmates, to consider physics at A-level, and in causing the subject to be regarded as “cool”. “The Big Bang Theory is a great show and it’s definitely made physics more popular. And disputes between classmates now have a new way of being settled: with a game of rock, paper, scissors, lizard, Spock,” he said.

And so are some of the experts:

Institute of Physics (IoP) spokesman, Joe Winters, said: “The rise in popularity of physics appears to be due to a range of factors, including Brian’s public success, the might of the Large Hadron Collider and, we’re sure, the popularity of shows like The Big Bang Theory.”

Alex Cheung, editor of physics.org, said: “There’s no doubt that TV has also played a role. The Big Bang Theory seems to have had a positive effect and the viewing figures for Brian Cox‘s series suggest that millions of people in the UK are happy to welcome a physics professor, with a tutorial plan in hand, into their sitting room on a Sunday evening.”  [Prof. Brian Cox who has been fronting a series of very popular science documentaries Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe.]

Brian Cox

Apparently there has been a 10% increase in the number of students accepted to read physics by the university admissions services between 2008-09, when The Big Bang Theory was first broadcast in the UK, and 2010-11. Applications for physics courses at university are also up more than 17% on last year.

Jim Al-Khalili

I know documentaries of the type presented by popular scientists like Brian Cox and Jim Al-Khalili (who has made Secret Life of ChaosChemistry: A Volatile History, Science and Islam,  Atom,   Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity, and others) are invaluable in motivating and inspiring young people. But there is something special to be said for soap operas. And The Big Bang Theory is a very entertaining and effective soap opera.

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