Talk about Newsnight

Science Student - Stephen Smith

Can you do my homework?

  • Stephen Smith
  • 24 Oct 06, 03:48 PM

blackboard203.jpgNewsnight editor Peter Barron had a notion recently to explore the dearth of science students in this country by ordering one of Newsnight's top correspondents to sit a physics exam.

But they were all busy, he explained, so I would have to do it. So I've joined the physics A-level group at Newsnight's local college - and it's not proving a simple matter.

Maybe you'll have more luck with vectors and scalars than I did. Join me now in the ultimate website 'extra' - yes, the Newsnight Homework Zone! Test your physics prowess against the posers that my teacher, Mr Mhlanga, set for me. NB Mark yourself down if you lose your answers on the bus or your dog eats 'em.

On with the homework...

1. Calculate the resultant, in magnitude and direction to the horizontal, of the following pair of forces:
8 N vertically and 5 N horizontally

a) 13.0 N; 32.0°
b) 10.3 N; 76.3°
c) 9.43 N; 58.0°

The following equations may be useful for the next two questions - assume uniform acceleration where relevant, and that the gravitational force is equal to 9.8 ms-1.

• initial velocity of the object = u
• the final velocity of the object = v
• the acceleration of the object = a
• the change in the displacement = s
• the time taken = t

• v = u + at
• s = ½(u + v)t
• s = ut + ½at²
• v² = u² + 2as

2. An aeroplane has a maximum acceleration of 3.4 ms -2. What is the minimum length of runway needed for it to achieve its take-off speed of 110 ms -1 and how long will it take?
a) 3.2 km; 25 s
b) 2.5 km; 41 s
c) 1.8 km; 32 s

3. A ball is thrown with a horizontal velocity of 14.0 ms -1 from a height of 6.4 m above the ground. Calculate the speed at which it strikes the ground.
a) 17.9 ms -1
b) 11.2 ms -1
c) 15.4 ms -1

There may even be a small (i.e. rubbish/unwanted) prize for the first correct answer...

Comments  Post your comment

  • 1.
  • At 05:19 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • towcestarian wrote:

Despite my advanced age and dwindling brain cells I found this test pathetically simple. I'm sure I would have been able to do the calculations easily as part of my Physics O Level (c1976), and without the multiple guess answers. You can't seriously be trying to tell us this trivia is what now passes for an A Level - pathetic! If this is the depths to which science education has sunk in the last 25 years, I despair for our future

  • 2.
  • At 05:44 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Nancy Grigg wrote:

I am quite shocked that anyone would discourage the teaching of the sciences.
At this time in history, it is the single most important thing to ENCOURAGE...not discourage.
Religions have ALL failed this world and it is now quite apparent that none of them have any formidable answers for our dead society.
Science seeks to EXPLAIN and find reasonable answers and solutions to these complex problems.
I still am in shock at this whole thing...

  • 3.
  • At 05:49 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Ruth Kelly wrote:

In his article, Stephen Smith says "We'll be trying to find out why young people are apparently so reluctant to read sciences - and what they might be missing out on. There's evidence, for example, that science graduates earn more over their working lifetimes than people with a humanities background."

And there lies the problem. Today we take an instrumentalist approach to education: "do this course and get a good job / earn loads of money". Presented in this way, why would anyone do something perceived to be hard, as well as somwhat remote? We need to rediscover and promote ideas such as intellectual curiosity, inspiration and the value of education as one of the keys to satisfaction and fulfilment.

Gosh. Rant over!

  • 4.
  • At 06:01 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Shueb Hussain wrote:

Unfortunately, the standards of A-levels, particularly science ones, has dropped dramatically in recent years. I did mine in 2004 and when doing some past papers from a decade earlier, it was pretty obvious that getting an A grade was a damn sight more difficult than it is now. (I ended up getting an average of 98% in my A levels of Maths, Further Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology(AS)).

It's a shame, because the standard of science in the students of this country is suffering as a result - despite the fact A level results get 'better' every year. The ridicule associated with the frequent assertions by ministers and education chiefs that standards are improving is comical.

It also means top universities like Cambridge have a much tougher job trying to figure out which applicants were worth their A grades, and which not.

  • 5.
  • At 06:02 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Ruari McCallion wrote:

I think they're all (c). The first two seemed vaguely familiar but I must confess I took a flyer on the third.
I shall have to ask my 19-year-old daughter, who's studying Physics at University College, London.
What??? A young person doing Physics, and a female, to boot?
Maybe science isn't as deeply mired in crisis as we think!
Ruari McCallion (English and Sociology, if you're interested, with a bit of history and a lot of student politics on the side. I was a 70s student!)

Just to show off at pensionable age:
1. (c) 9.43N 58.0
2. (c) 1.8km, 32s
3. (b) 11.2ms-1

Enjoyed the trick at No.3

  • 7.
  • At 07:07 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Andrew H wrote:

I agree with the first commentator - this stuff is more O'Level than A'Level.

The first question is simple Pythagoras and then a use of a trig ratio to calculate the angle.

The second is solved using the 'V squared' equation to find S, and the time taken calculated by dividing the take-off speed by the acceleration.

The third is a little trickier: You have to find the time taken to fall 6.4m under gravity, using the third equation with u=0 and a=9.8. Then substituting for t in the first equation of motion, with a=9.8, will give the VERTICAL speed at impact.

  • 8.
  • At 07:39 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Ruari McCallion wrote:

Ed Iglehart - you're right! I was adding the gravitational acceleration. Stupid me!
To the commentators who are saying 'this is more O-level' - you're correct, and it's hardly any surprise. It's a homework assignment at the START of A-Level, not the end of a 2-year course. I expect things will get tougher for the intrepid aged student.
Shueb Hussain - congratulations on your excellent marks at A-Level. Shame you haven't worked out that the AVERAGE standard is much higher: we now have over 40 per cent of our 18-year-olds going on to higher education: in the 1970s, it was about 10 per cent. Were we, who were privileged to do so, that much brighter? No. Back in those days, we hadn't grown out of the idea that we needed an elite to run the Empire, and the rest could go hang. The education model now goes some way to recognising that we need a population that has, generally, been educated to a higher level. It's not perfect, but please get off that 'not as hard as it was in my day' hobby-horse. Young people today are, on average, educated to a much higher level than they were in mine. And thank goodness for it - fewer on the scrapheap at 11, 16 and 18 is better for the country and for them.

  • 9.
  • At 07:56 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Nick Murphy wrote:

We covered 'SUVAT' equations as part of my GCSE Physics course. Sad to see things don't get much more difficult...

  • 10.
  • At 08:40 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Nick I wrote:

"I'm sure I would have been able to do the calculations easily as part of my Physics O Level (c1976), and without the multiple guess answers"

I think it is fair to point out that this topic is a small part of the the first of six modules at A Level, and that the exam itself has no multiple choice questions whatsoever.

  • 11.
  • At 08:42 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • stephan wrote:


To Ruari & Ed:

The vertical speed will just be v=a*t with t = Sqrt(2*s/a), yielding v=Sqrt(2*s*a)=
Sqrt(2*6.4 m *9.8 m/s^2)=11.2 m/s.

But they asked for the total velocity. Assuming no air friction the horizontal velocity at impact is still 14.0 m/s. Using phytogras then gives 17.9 m/s

Of course, that's assuming a flat planet with no atmosphere.

Now calculate the angle of bounce.

  • 13.
  • At 08:52 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Shueb Hussain wrote:

Well it maybe true that the average standard of literacy and education has improved, it doesn't change the fact that the standard of the best academics has fallen. The government is hardly applauding the increase in average standards - figures about getting the top grades (A-C) in A levels are the ones quoted most readily. If it becomes progressively easier to get an A-C at A level (either because the gov. wants nice stats on the latest results, or to encourage more people to sit unpopular subjects), obviously there will be a continual rise in the number of people getting A-C grades. The point of exams is to usefully differentiate different intellectual abilities, and provide a standard for comparison between different people.

So my point is my results aren't as "excellent" as they may seem at first sight.

The best post-A level students, even in our own universities, are from the USA, China, Malaysia or somewhere else. Pioneering scientists and academics are bred less and less from our schools because of a degradation of the difficulty of our main qualifications.

If this continues, the standards throughout our academic intuitions will reduce, as the universities are only as good as the academics within them. We will no longer have the most highly regarded universities (after the USA).

Also, might I add, more people going to university doesn’t necessarily mean that people have a better education. Many people now at uni would have been doing things like apprenticeships in the past, which I think are more suited to their needs.

  • 14.
  • At 09:01 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Ellie wrote:

ahhh the old easy stuff eh?
Well I'm currently doing a physics degree and give me this stuff anyday over Quantum Mechanics!! It's quite funny to know that this stuff used to in the GSCE course...they should put it back in because I can tell you first hand how disapointing it is to walk into your first Alevel physics class to basically be told that almost everything you learnt at GCSE is wrong or just irrelevant! Then at uni your taught everything is wrong again!! Light travels in straight lines! is a wave...well yes and no! No wonder people dont study's hard! and people are encouraged to take the easy option so schools can get up the league tables.

  • 15.
  • At 09:26 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • YF wrote:

1. (c)
2. (c)
3. (a)

  • 16.
  • At 09:45 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Keith Morrison wrote:

When I did my scottish O Grades in '85 I knew those equations off by heart, they are bread and butter stuff.

Ok so i confess i went on to do a degree in Physics, and did work as a scientist at a certain research facility shown on TV last week, before studying theology and becoming a minister of religion but I still say it would have been more fun to have left them out.

  • 17.
  • At 10:26 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Pete wrote:

I'm afraid these questions are really arithmetic and basic geometry.

I suppose that if the examples are somehow translated into the underlying real world physics that would be the only justification for these questions being posed.

Honestly, I am at a loss how these questions would test a pupils understanding of the subject and just how firm a grasp one had of the principles.

I am sure that a kid who had a good grasp of physics would plough through these questions with no trouble but I also know that someone could pass well without any real notion of what the equations are meant to represent.

Are the questions really representative of A-level standard ?

  • 18.
  • At 10:35 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Paul wrote:

If that is really A-Level today then we are in serious trouble. That was O-Level/GCSE in 1985.

  • 19.
  • At 11:06 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Alex wrote:

I did these questions as part of AS physics last year, it is probably the easiest stuff on the course, and made easier beacuse you can do it in Maths as well.... We do go on to do harder stuff!

Multiple choice physics? Dumbing down in action.

(he says, proceeding to get them all wrong)

1 c. It's pythagoras, innit?
2 c
3 a.

And this is an A-level? What on earth is on the GCSE syllabus? Don't answer that.

My frog ate my homework

  • 21.
  • At 11:29 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Craig wrote:

Surely this can't be representative of the current A-Level physics!? This was GCSE stuff when I took mine in 1997; and not even the top tier for that! Here's hoping these questions formed part of the 'revision' part of the course, because otherwise, standards certainly have slipped...

  • 22.
  • At 11:29 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Rob wrote:

I agree with comment 19. I am doing AS physics at the moment. We spent under an hour on this subject which then lead on to much harder concepts that, without this simple formulae and knowledge, would have been near impossible. It is mearly the "running over" of GCSE lessons to then build on them further as an AS student. I fear this is the reason you had these questions in you O level exams as I also had simular questions in my GCSE last year. No not 20 years ago as many of you have said but under half a year!

  • 23.
  • At 11:30 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Barry Butchers wrote:

Having done a Physics degree just 7 years ago and achieved a 2:1 from Bath University - I have done much private tutoring in Physics and mathematics for student studying for GCSE Exams.

I am interested in Teaching as a profession - the problem being funding to do the training - £10k or less incentive simply wont sustain me at 30 years old with a small flat to run in Berkshire.

I would like to comment on what people say about the standard of qualifications - a rise in grades does not reflect a fall in quality just more focus on education. Remember that GCSE students are studying up to 13 or 14 subjects to a competent level - I'd like to see adults of my age or older doing well in such a broad range of topics!

Shortage of Physics teachers? That's because teaching is the lowest paid proffession for a physics graduate - solution is simple surely????

  • 24.
  • At 11:31 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • A Barnett (B.Sc Physics) wrote:

The questions are multiple guess. This is one of the big problems of todays dumber teaching style. We had to get it right in my day with no prompting from a set of ballpark options.
Phyicists need one faculty in particular - the ability to see what is correct. If they cannot do that, then they should become chemists, biologists or other lower forms of life.
The other faculty needed of course is mathematics - invented again by physicists.
All the successful physicists I have ever known by the way, taught themselves more than their teachers could teach them. The third thing you need then is insatiable curiosity!
The reward for ten years pursuit of physics - you know how everything works and how to use it and abuse it.

I am a Physics Teacher!

Mr Paxman was commenting on the "boring" nature of vectors and scalars. In fact, he is dismissing one of the most fundemental insights into the nature of our world.

Surely when he wants to walk to tne toilet he has to take both the direction as well as the distance into account, otherwise the result could be most unfortunate. I therefore presume he intuitively understands about vectors.

Scalars are the boring ones, fixed to a dreary up or down, like temperature, time, and Paxman.

  • 26.
  • At 11:35 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Arjan wrote:

One only has to compare the text books for A level physics today with the O level ones from 20 years ago to see that the CSE (yes remember that!) was tougher in those days than today's A levels.

Why is science in this country in the state it's in. Simple it is because policy is made by arts graduates, who don't even know what they don't know, and so can't comprehend the sleepwalking into oblivion that this will have the UK in 20 years.

Also, if you want to do A level as it should have been ... send your kids to a school in the commonwealth that sits the A levels abroad. The standards and syllabus for them (set from here) is it was like in the UK 20 years ago.

UK Science / (Engineering ...a joke) RIP

  • 27.
  • At 11:35 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Richard wrote:

Yes. In my memory, these questions do seem more O level than A level, but I reckon Stephen's being broken in gently. As I dimly recall, back in 1986 it was applying the equations for thermodynamics that saw my downfall in Physics.

I'm not sute that we should have told him the answers - still as long as he shows his working ... :-)

  • 28.
  • At 11:35 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Sam Mortimer wrote:

Although I Have only just started my AS-level, I found this pathetically simple. As such, I feel that you have taken the level of students knowledge and quality of current state education to lows only the media can reach.

Oh, and I think you'll find much of these questions as more suited to M1 off the AS-maths sylabus, rather than A2-Physics.

  • 29.
  • At 11:36 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • John C wrote:

Hi Andrew H,
So, "this stuff is more O'Level than A'Level" huh?

But you haven't completed the answer to the question. Once you have found the vertical "speed" (I think you mean velocity) you must calculate the final impact speed of the ball by using Pythag's theorem. The impact speed will be the square root of the sum of the squares of the impact vertical velocity and the horizontal velocity given in the question.

Still, I guess you would have got half marks.


  • 30.
  • At 11:37 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Rach wrote:

i started studying AS level physics last month and this really is the easy basic stuff, and yes this is pretty similar to what is studied at GCSE only it is a slight development. we are now moving onto harder areas of the syllabus. i kno that if my parents were to sit down and try this (my father having left school at the age of 15 in 1979 and my mum having left school at 16 in 1987), they would be truely baffled and wouldnt know where to start.

  • 31.
  • At 11:37 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • James Briggs wrote:

May I just add that the questions above are those found at the start (if at all) of an A level paper. Yes so students are doing better these days, but if the grades were remaining similar after all the recent extra funding then there would be need for concern

  • 32.
  • At 11:37 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Alex wrote:

The questions here do not represent the level of A-level Physics today. Mechanics itself is taken to much higher levels in both the Maths Mechanics modules and in Physics AS units.
Physics does still retain some more interesting topics in A2 in synoptic papers, that bring in modern ideas which keeps Physics exciting to learn about!

  • 33.
  • At 11:39 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • SJM wrote:

Hi, thats all very interesting but that piece of music which played at the start of the special report has been driving me mad for months as I know I know it but don't know what it is - anyone out there cultural aswell as scientific?

  • 34.
  • At 11:40 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Ken wrote:

This was pre O Level in the 1960s. It was the value that that decades scociety, remember "the white heat of technology", placed on science / engineering/ medicine that led to my love of physics - given my most uninspiring physics teacher, but luckily a brilliant mathematics teacher who was, incidentaly, also a welsh bard.
By A level we were starting to glimpse the "secrets of the universe".
If engineering and science is regarded as having the same validity and value as superstition then we will get the society we deserve.

  • 35.
  • At 11:40 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • sophie wrote:

I notice people are commenting on the simplicity of these questions, which probably explains why many are deterred by the elitist image. Admittedly these are fairly easy once one understands the problem, but while i was doing my physics A level i was often put down by my physics teacher because he discovered i didn't do maths.

  • 36.
  • At 11:44 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Jon Hart wrote:

I did my A-levels in 2004 and i did the physics A-level and it was not as all you o-level people say easy, the assignment posted on this web page was however easy. Please remember that this is the 1st homework of the A-level course and would be very much a basic lesson of the very simple concepts which will be built on throughout the course. So please dont assume that the entire A-level is that easy! I would love to see how your O-levels hold up when using Newtons law of gravity or the electrostactic force equations. p.s its funny how not all of you answered the questions right!

  • 37.
  • At 11:47 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • louise campion wrote:

As a chemistry graduate and regular newsnight viewer I was apalled by this pathetic piece of dumbed down journalism. There was a serious debate to be had - so why were we subjected to 5 minutes of Stephen Smith acting dumb. Yes, science is hard and it doesn't lend itself to being analysed in 2 second soundbites - is that why no-one wants to study it anymore? I blame the media!!

  • 38.
  • At 11:49 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Jonathan Morley wrote:

I think that the third question was of "old" A-level standard. The formulae would not have been supplied, though.

The first two questions' options were extreme enough for an estimate to give the correct answer.

I didn't bother to work out the angle in question 1 ... the answer was supplied for me once I had done the Pythagoras' to get the magnitude.

Frankly, I would have struggled in Stephen Smith's class because the teacher doesn't seem to have the necessary English to get the ideas across ...

  • 39.
  • At 11:49 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Ruari McCallion wrote:

Shueb - I really don't see how the standard of 'the best' has fallen, because the average is higher. surely, the opportunities for the Best at the Russell Group universities are that much greater? The cadre from which they are drawn is wider and much more intellectually rigorous, now that we don't have 'family places' or 'school places' at Oxbridge? Or were you not aware that they existed? They were the means by which the stupid children of he upper classes got a university degreee. Prince Charles got archaeology at Cambridge despite having no As at A-level. If my memory serves me well (which it may not, owing to advancing age) his best grade was a C.
"The best post-A level students, even in our own universities, are from the USA, China, Malaysia or somewhere else." Why, then, are the Chinese sending their children to be educated at SCHOOL here, not just university? I have an answer but it will take a while.

AS for the USA - please, base your arguments on facts, not idle coffee-bar chat. While the US has some genuine world-class universities (more than we but, then again, it has five times the population) the average 18-year-old has nothing like the depth of education of his/her English or Welsh equivalent (Scotland is different). They don't reach our older university standard until they reach the second year of graduate school.
The UK has an outstanding record of Nobel laureates. And you can go outside Russell Group for some of the major advances in science: It was at Leicester University that the principles of DNA identification were discovered, not at some US Ivy League institution, nor at Oxbridge. We still have a great deal to learn from those US institutions: not least, how to raise money from the private sector without seeing it as a right, something that is due to us because of our status as upper-class universities.
Manchester is taking the lessons on board: keep an eye on it in times to come.

  • 40.
  • At 11:51 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Dr x wrote:

I am a foreign scientist who has been working in this country for many years, doing a job that very few British citizens want and can do.

I was watching your program tonight and I can only say this was appalling.

For goodness sake...Who cares Steve Smith is not able to pass A-Level Physics tests !!!
Nothing about why so few students want to undertake scientific studies.
Nothing about the current situation in UK universities where most of the PhD students come from the continent. No facts, no analysis, no potential remedies...NOTHING...apart from amusing the crowds...
I just cannot believe the way the staff at Newsnight deal with this sort of subject.

Yes, this country is in deep shit like the one I left.

  • 41.
  • At 11:52 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • C J Coyle wrote:

Answers-c); c); b).
58 y.o. 0-LEVEL Physics 1966
In the third question the horizontal velocity is irrevelant.
Vertically u=0, s=6.4, a=9.8, find v

I bet you drop out before Christmas.
C J Coyle

  • 42.
  • At 11:52 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Chris, Manchester wrote:

These were rather simple. Perhaps it would be more appropriate for pupils to be given the choice to study two of the three sciences at GCSE level and drop the other one. I was never fond of biology yet have just finished a Physics degree. You can't really band the three together because they are as different from each other as permafrost and oranges.
Also I agree with the comments made in the programme about specialist teachers being required to teach their own subject. Imagine how difficult it must be for an English teacher to teach probability (or for a Physics teacher to teach Shakespeare for that matter). Perhaps the 'bacc' is nearer than we thought.

  • 43.
  • At 11:53 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • M Ridley wrote:

These questions are not particulaly demanding. I was hoping for more...

As an A-level maths and physics graduate (94) who elected to go to art school I found your reporters inability to apply himself to the problem even more dissapointing. His inability to tackle the questions posed in the report illustrate the attitudes perfectly of the younger generations and re-enforce the old adage that scientists can be artists but artists can't be scientists.Yet, culture when explored rigoriously, is far more intellectual and demanding than any undergraduate science course.

I hope he scrapes a B...!

  • 44.
  • At 11:54 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • physics-chris wrote:

Well, i'm with those that got (c),(c) & (a). Looks like elementary first year A-level Physics/Mathematics(mechanics module). I hope the reporter tried this first before checking our answers. No point cheating is there. You'll just get found out.
Question for Joe Dixon. Are you referring to +ve and -ve when talking about scalars above, as up & down? This is where people can get thrown off in Physics, seen it myself, scalars have no direction, only magnitude. Like the speed question (3) above.

  • 45.
  • At 11:54 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Ben wrote:

I make it c,c,a.

Mr Mhlanga might want check his phrasing of the question...

"gravitational force is equal to 9.8 ms-1"

Force? in ms^-1? Surely acceleration due to gravity in ms^-2?

Also amazing how many people bragged at getting the answer when in my opinion they were wrong.
By the way, this is only the mechanics bit of the a-level, it does get harder, in fact some parts of the A-level were only inlcuded recently since they were discovered after O levels ;)

  • 46.
  • At 11:54 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Stewart Bryant wrote:

It is the multiple choice that makes these too easy to be a real test at A level.

In Q1 you simply calculate magnitude rather than the vector which is much easier. If the question were write down the answer it would be a true test of understanding. Unfortunately open questions are more expensive to mark than multiple choice.

Q2 looks like two questions, but because of multiple choice it's really one easy question solved by using t=v/a from the crib equations.

Q3 at least requires the student to think about resolving the velocities. I think however it would be a better question if it asked the student to give the angle of bounce off a horizontal surface. I assume that it is stating the standard assumption of zero air resistance, in which case it should really state the assumption.

Hopefully these are just a warm up for some real science, but I expect my hopes will be dashed.

  • 47.
  • At 11:55 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Nuvin wrote:

These questions are indeed O level material, and I'm afraid this does reflect a general decline in interest and expectation.

What an irony for a nation who at one time was the jewel of the scientific community.

  • 48.
  • At 11:56 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • Vince wrote:

If there is such a shortage of scientists, why is it so difficult to find a science job after graduating with a physics degree? Try looking in the job ads in New Scientist for example (or the Internet or where ever you wish). There are lots of jobs requiring chemistry and biology graduates, but try finding one for a physics graduate. They're few and far between. Far from a shortage in physics graduates, it looks like there's a shortage of science jobs. Where are all these jobs for physicists that Susan Anderson of the CBI referred to in tonights programme?

  • 49.
  • At 11:58 PM on 24 Oct 2006,
  • richard wrote:

Once upon a high and far off time, in a galaxy pretty close to here, (1961, Southend on Sea), questions of this type were given to grammar school third years, 13/14 year olds, in the first year of GCE 'O' level Mechanics under the Oxford and Cambridge Board. A great deal of what comprised the Applied Maths component of 'A' level Maths (Pure & Applied), in fact as far as one could go without tangling with calculus was offered in that 'O' level course. It made maths instantly a great deal more relevant, to boys at least. Talk of Pool/Biliards/Snooker, car smashes, weapon ballistics and many other exciting topics gained a great deal from these studies, and conversely maths and physics gained a large measure of 'cred'.

  • 50.
  • At 12:00 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • C J Coyle wrote:

answers- c,c,b.
O-Level 1966 (58yo)
In the 3rd question horizontal velocity is a red herring.
u=0, s=6.4, a=9.8, find v

  • 51.
  • At 12:00 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • iain wrote:

The funny thing is everyone is saying these Q's are easy, yet there are lots of conflicting answers to Q3 already. It asks for the speed when it hits the ground, so I agree with Stephan that it's (a).

Some people need to revise vectors vs scalars again (eg Andy H - what is "VERTICAL speed", isn't speed a scalar? Even Stephan, who got the right answer, says "velocity" in his explanation, but they ask for the speed, and there is no direction in any of the three answers....)

NB - this was surely GCSE in my day, maks me cry to see these "improving standards" being trumpeted each year.

  • 52.
  • At 12:12 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Ryan H wrote:

I agree with Stephan and YF, that it's 1c, 2c, 3a.

In question 3 we are asked for the speed (i.e. total magnitude of the velocity vector) at which the ball hits the ground, not just its vertical component.

Asking for "the speed at which it strikes the ground" is slightly ambiguous, almost implying that the vertical component of its velocity (i.e. normal to the ground) is wanted.

However, the provision of the horizontal speed in the problem greatly strengthens the implication that it should have been worded more clearly as "the speed of the ball as it strikes the ground", which gives no hint that the vertical component might be wanted.

I don't think the horizontal speed is extraneous information as I presume Ed thought, vis "Enjoyed the trick at No.3". I presumed at first that the trick was in providing 11.2 m/s as one of the choices.

With multiple choice, you only need half of the solution to questions 1 and 2 to rule out the other answers:
i.e.1) sqrt(8²+5²)=9.43 N must be (c)
and 2) t=(v-u)/a=110/3.4=32.35s must be (c)

  • 53.
  • At 12:13 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • James wrote:

As an antidote to the "Oh the old easy stuff" type comments above:

Three of the five respondents got it wrong. That means 60% of people got a C grade (2/3 correct, I reckon 67% is a "C" right?)

So the first two were easy enough, but the last question tripped up quite a few.

I'm thinking "remember humility" here, for all the A levels have indeed become easier.

  • 54.
  • At 12:13 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • David wrote:

I've just moved into year 13, studying maths, physics, chemistry and computing A-levels and suvat equations are taught right at the beginning of AS physics and maths (mechanics). The questions in the exams are not multiple choice and are far more difficult than the questions here, due to the fact that the exams tend to mix together several aspects of physics in each question.

In response to Ian ("What on earth is on the GCSE syllabus? Don't answer that") I am going to answer that because I have had first hand experience of teaching GCSE physics this year (helping out my teachers in year 10 lessons) and it's absolutely ridiculous. The whole GCSE science course has been changed this year and whilst the chemistry and biology sections are excellent, the physics portion of the course is a complete joke. As my teacher put it when showing me the textbook, "here are the two physics chapters.. good luck finding any physics in them". The majority of this new physics GCSE is covered in more detail and to a more advanced level in year 9 geography. So far the class I've been helping has learnt the basics of volcano formation and earthquakes, in half a term of lessons). There is nothing about electricity, magnetism, energy, work and power, etc (all things that WERE in the GCSE I did and that form the foundations needed to move into a physics A-level).

  • 55.
  • At 12:14 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Richard wrote:

The report and discussion has got me thinking about inspirational teachers and do they really matter? I mean the teacher has to be able to teach, but the only inspirational thing about my Physics teacher was his stunning daughter (who was far too sophisticated to notice me). What led me to do Physics at A level and to attempt a Maths degree, was I had an aptitude in these subjects that I didn't have in languages or Arts.

I only got an E in my Physics A level. Does anyone know if one can have another go some 20 years later? I think I might be far more motivated this time.

  • 56.
  • At 12:14 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Low Tech wrote:

Retired Fireman now part time car washer. Sure I did this at school,which I left age 16.

  • 57.
  • At 12:17 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Ahmad wrote:

1)√(82 + 52) = 9.43 N
arctan(8/5)= 58.0

=> 1c

2) Using Horizontal motion

u = 0 ms-1
v = 110 ms-1
a = 3.4 ms-2
s = ?
t = ?

. v = u + at
t = 32s

. S = ut + 1/2(at2)
S = 1779 m
= 1.8 km

=> 2c

3) Using Vertical motion

u = 0 ms-1
v = ?
a = 9.8 ms-2
s = 6.4 m
t = don’t need

v2 = u2 + 2as
v = 11.2 ms-1

=> 3b

Always list u v a s t for horizontal motion and vertical mortion and everything is solved.

  • 58.
  • At 12:19 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Nuvin wrote:

Just a note. The answer to question 3 is 17.9 m/s (i.e. a and not b as some people seem to suggest).

The easiest way to do that is by using the conservation of energy, where the calculation is not only logical but also really simple (you do not even need to manipulate any of the fomulae given). Air resistance losses are neglected.

I think curricula should revert to the old A level (which is undeniably of a higher standard), and taught with the new approach (where relevance to real life is explicit at every step and not something to be revealed in the distant future).

  • 59.
  • At 12:20 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • physics-chris wrote:

Re. comment no. 36. by Vince. You are quite correct in stating that there are not many job ads requiring physicists in New Scientist, but if you've graduated with a physics degree you should know by now that you often have to help yourself. Perhaps at times, myself and other course mates thought we should have done engineering or one of the other sciences. However, there are many other careers out there that requiring a grounding in one of the physical sciences or mathematics. Don't stop looking. Try the IOP home page,, graduate recruitment schemes...
Trust me when I say there are more opportunities out there than just those advertised by New Scientist

  • 60.
  • At 12:22 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Leslie G Green. wrote:

As an ex physics teacher, now 83 years old I must agree with the majority of the comments. From 1982 (when I retired) to 2005 I gave private tuition during which time I witnessed a marked lowering of the standard.

  • 61.
  • At 12:34 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Richard wrote:

That music you were asking about is the Divinyls with a track called "I Touch Myself" - absolute classic :-)

For what it's worth I reckon the answers are c, c, a. In the last one you DO need to resolve your vectors vertically and horizontally, otherwise what was the point of the lesson.

And to answer Ed in point 12, I think that the angle of bounce on this airless flat planet, to the nearest degree, would be 39 to the horizontal .... assuming no spin.
Blimey it's late, must go.

  • 62.
  • At 12:34 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • John Brockbank wrote:

GCSE level? Luxury. When I were a lad we had to do harder physics than that just to get into nursery school. You couldn't even start A level physics without having been to the moon. Wi' no clothes on.

  • 63.
  • At 12:38 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • sjm wrote:

As I said earlier, "thats all very interesting" its all good and well having a passion for any science or accademic subject but seeing as the education of todays young hopefulls 'Woolies' everything together in duel awards etc its no wonder theres a lack of interest and speciallity except among those who've a genuine interest in the subject - it's clear though that as speciallised in your fields as you all presume to be - from 18 to 80 year olds, no one knows what that piece of music is that was on at the start of the feature. Maybe scientists are scientists only that and thats what puts potential genius' off the subject? You tell me.

  • 64.
  • At 12:40 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Jeremy Brown wrote:

Without wishing to sound like an old fogy, I do remember doing these types of calculation at both O' level Additional Maths and Physics.

Question three is ambiguous in that the answer could relate to the total velocity or the vertical downward velocity at impact. Given that the forward velocity is stated and, as a general exam rule, all information in the question should be used, I think they are after the total velocity; i.e. the sum (resultant) of the vertical and horizontal vectors.

The units given for g are incorrect and may cause some confusion in those unfamiliar with the subject. "g" should be 9.8 ms-2, an acceleration, and not 9.8 ms-1 which is a velocity. The correct units help students to know which equations to use.

Having studied both Physics and Chemistry as my first degree, I think the key to inspiration is to keep the sums simple for as long as possible. Much better to explain/discover how things/the world works and then relate it formally to the underlying fundamental theory.

Physics and Chemistry pupils need to have lots of fun experiments in school - with few teacher demos. Children enjoy hands-on, regardless of ability.

In the old days the jump from O to A level was pretty big. I feel very sorry for those trying to leap from Combined Science GCSE to separate A levels - all be it to a less demanding standard of the past.

Unfortunately - as the examples show - an underlying understanding of maths (at least to good GCSE) is essential to prosper in Physics A level.

So in order to understand the problems of science teaching we also need to redress the shortages in mathematics teaching.

Also having an arts degree, I consider my science first degree far harder than my supposedly more difficult arts second degree.

Throughout my career I have been derided by arts graduates as a techi or nerd. It is perfectly acceptable in our society to be innumerate - just watch Jeremy Paxman's face when a graph is presented - where as to be illiterate is a far bigger stigma.

If Mr. Smith wants any serious help to understand "God's chosen subject", I will do my best to help.

Educational problems are not just related to science, foreign languages are also under pressure. Perhaps the real truth is that with pupils and schools under relentless pressure to achieve better and better A level scores - easier, less expensive subjects are favoured, especially where there is a plentiful over-supply of teachers.

  • 65.
  • At 12:41 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Frank Hayes wrote:

If the answers aren't the 3 c's, ie
1 (c)
2 (c)
3 (c)
it must be that my slide rule hasn't adapted to Newtons and metres yet. Come to think of it, neither have I.

  • 66.
  • At 12:42 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Don wrote:

The background information for Questions 2 & 3 is wrong, stating that "gravitational force is equal to 9.8 ms-1". The relevant and correct statement would be that the gravitational ACCELERATION is 9.8, with units ms-2, not ms-1. Really!

  • 67.
  • At 12:51 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Harry wrote:

I don't think any of the answers are right, though most offers are nearly there. Doesn't anyone qualify their answers to an appropriate number of decimal places anymore?

  • 68.
  • At 12:56 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Ryan H wrote:

The statistic in the asterisk footnote at the bottom of the main article (see link in first paragraph of this page) could be misleading.

It says:
*In 1982, 55,728 pupils sat A-level Physics. In 2006, that figure has declined to 27,368 (Source: Statistics of Education School Leavers, Joint Council for Qualifications)

OK, so perhaps the number of Physics A levels taken has halved in that time. It doesn't appear to take account of people taking AS-level Physics, which weren't an option in 1982. Counting them as half might paint a less bleak picture, though I suspect (without bothering to get any evidence) that there's still a marked decline.

I know when I took my A-levels in the late 1980's, that a fair few of my cohorts took Physics to make up their three or so subjects but always intended to focus more on, say, Chemistry, perhaps Biology or maybe even Mathematics at university. To those with such intentions, I'd imagine that today, many of them might chose a broader range of AS levels to supplement their main subject.

Then again, perhaps AS levels are counted in the cited statistics.

We must always beware that some reports will omit such corrections and fail to furnish all the information which can help make a more persuasive point in favour of a particular view, and that some journalists will provide only the juiciest-soundind statistics for a catchier story at the expense of providing useful information.

Examples like a 50% rise in a specific cancer rate abound in the press, with most articles failing to mention the absolute rate which might be only 2 in 10-million, rising to 3 in 10-million let alone any idea of statistical error.

BTW, the decline in O-level Physics since 1982 is even more severe than the decline in A-level Physics.

But I'm sure everyone would see right through the inadequacy of that stat, just as it's a matter of course to use statistics on GCSE grades A to C as a proxy for comparison to O-level statistics in years gone by.

  • 69.
  • At 01:09 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Harry wrote:

Oh, and the questions about music are actually quite relevant you know. Isn't music physics? Sound is a wave form through medium of air? And what about what created the sound - isn't that physics? And how it gets from microphone and camera, recording onto a medium, transmission across the country, conversion and displaying on TV? If people don't understand that then how do we get to the next stage?

We used to get a "man" in to fix things. Now, there's no man. We throw things away and buy another. And where do we throw it? And what energy is used to make another? It's all connected, this knowing-nothing-about-physics lark.

  • 70.
  • At 01:31 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • sjm wrote:

Dearest Richard,

Thank you so much for engaging and trying to solve my dilema, think you should maybe look at a career in occupational therapy - providing you've not already sorted your career in physics! However, limewire says you are incorrect - "Computer says no!"

Thank you for trying though dear boy, it was very much appreciated amongst all that science stuff.

Hear it on Chris Moyles every morning you see and have been trying to work out what the piece is for ages.


  • 71.
  • At 01:38 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Spike wrote:

"Sow mulch forehead, you" Kay shone,
"Thee, Porpoise of Witch. Hazel weighs bean toot. Each pea pole? They're plaice."
I may have paraphrased slightly but I believe it was Keith Joseph who said this in the mid to late eighties.
Under the current 'administration' the lesson is
The families of school leavers at 16 lose out financially if the young person is "unemployed" rather than "staying-on" at 6th Form/Tech.
Therefore it's of little surprise that more young people are.
Colleges receive revenue primarily on the basis on headcount. Results are important, but only from the perspective of accreditation, so there is little incentive to businesses in education to raise pass standards.
Higher pass mark = fewer passes = lower "league table" position = fewer students = less profit. Thank goodness we'll all be able to hike our fees up when these Childrens bonds things start to mature in 14/15 years time.
"But the government sets the standard!" you say.
Indeed, but what govt likes to fund failure. (stress on likes)
Have to admit, bit confused about Q3, but then its been a few years since I had a teacher explain the context in which a series of postulates sit, before then setting questions on same. However back on this curved world, could someone please explain how the initial velocity is to be ignored in Q3 if the plane in Q2 is expected to take off?
Maybe if I'd tuned in in time to watch the feature?
Sorry, wasn't paying attention, too busy playing computer games.
Spaghetti made from string?
What Flavour?
Charmed, I'm sure.

  • 72.
  • At 01:42 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • SJM wrote:

totally valid point Harry - but please can you tell me what the score is???

  • 73.
  • At 01:47 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Rob wrote:

How to get students involved more in science and to persue it as a career?

Simple. Remove the vast amounts of red-tape and health & stafety restrictions regarding practical demontrations and lab work in schools and let the kids get their hands dirty.

I mean, what child in there right mind is going to want to persue a career in a subject, that for all intent and purpose theasedays, is nothing more than an extended math lesson in Newtons theorms (and the kids, when they get to uni, still won't understand calculus). Afterall, the most exciting experiment I got to do during my A-levels was boil a beaker of water, and when I quized the teacher about how boring this was, his reply was "we're not allowed to show you any of the fun stuff" .

I recall the time when I was at Junior school. To teach us the basics of the respiratory system, the teacher got us to play around with cows lungs, by getting us to inflate them by blowing down a small hose. Lets see if the beancounters will let the teacher get away with that in this day and age.

There is however an approach that could work. This is to take certain aspects of the BTEC type qulifications and incorperate that into the A-Level. wherein which the students, from day one, start doing, and get involved in the subject.

Instead of trying to teach them, ad nausium, equations and formule with no frame of reference (and will find out are redundant if they persue a career in the subject), get the kids involved! let them make a mess and get their hands dirty. after all, that is the corner-stone of science - observation and understanding! The derivation, the maths, is secondary.

PS. Those multiple choice questions posted in the main article are trivial and I remember doing such questions at GCSE (triple award - higher tier) physics in 1999, and they were'nt multiple choice either. no wonder we get better exam grades year upon year if this is what the A-Level has been reduced too.

  • 74.
  • At 03:01 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • JimmyGiro wrote:

"An empty hand is no lure for a hawk."
On the Isle of Wight, which is one of the largest parliamentary constituencies in the land, our only College has no classes for A-levels in Maths, Physics, or Chemistry. Yet the Principal (herself having no degree in science or art) boasts in the local press that the government inspectorate has judged her college as being in the top 10% of the country.
This statistic being achieved by eliminating all difficult/unpopular subjects, and thus confirming Stalin's observation that "Quantity has its own quality".
This seems to suit the staff, who are primarily women (about 80%), and chosen as much for their admin skills as their teaching credentials.
Education isn't just being dumbed down, it's being castrated.

  • 75.
  • At 04:23 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Henry wrote:

I'm quite upset that Newsnight seem to think that this is the whole constituent of a Physics A-level. I'm currently taking mine, and having achieved a high A at AS-level (with similar predictions for this Summer), I can expect only (generously) 10 marks out of the 300 to be awarded for such sorts of questions. I've yet to see a multiple choice question, and am not expecting to in any of my exams. If the right specification is followed, there is still provision for questions that will test even the most able students. I'm not claiming that exams haven't declined in style - we all know that that indeed is the case, but with good teaching, students are exposed to the older questions as well as the newer exams that we have to face. The AEA is also available, as an equivalent to the S-level or STEP Physics that used to exist - however, it is underpublicised, as I had to explain to some of my fellow schoolmates what it was. I'm currently also undertaking a Physics Research project within the school department, investigating the correlation between barometric pressure and cosmic ray flux, as well as preparing for the British Physics Olympiad. Perhaps the problem is that students simply aren't enthusiastic enough, which has resulted in the "dumbing-down" of exams, even if not to the extent that Newsnight was claiming here. And what degree am I looking to do - Mathematics. Even I could not be lured to do Physics at university - not a problem with the course though, which I thoroughly enjoy - it's just that I enjoy Maths more!

  • 76.
  • At 05:44 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Livid wrote:

Imagine a parallel world where there are declining numbers of arts students in Britain. Could you then imagine Newsnight sending its science editor out to do an amusing piece on the lack of British actors and sculptors?

The main problem with science is that its predicament is not a serious issue with the arts-educated media luvvies.

  • 77.
  • At 06:56 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • David wrote:

Frankly, I am not surprised that few of those in education do not want to study science or pursue a career in science or engineering.

I loved and studied sciences - O level all sciences grade A (1978), A-level Physics grade A (1980), MEng Electrical Engineering 2/1 (1985).

I ended up being a Software Engineer.

What amazes me is that anyone can call themselves an engineer (e.g. BT engineer is really a telecomms electrician, a central heating engineer is a CORGI registered plumber etc etc). In the US and almost all other developed countries, an Engineer has the same status as Doctor, Solicitor or Accountant. You can only call yourself an Engineer if you are qualified. The status of Engineer is high and the salaries reflect that.

In this country and engineer is someone with an oily rag.

I blame the science and engineering professional bodies for not lobbying the government to ensure the status of Engineer is policed and therefore is sufficiently high.

I blame poor teaching for not being enthusiastic enough and making the sciences 'sexy'.

I think that the point people have missed here is that these examples are from AS level Physics, not A2 level. AS is meant to be intermiate between GCSE and A level.

The examples are straightforward that is true but the principles are there. You can't teach kids to run before they can walk.

  • 79.
  • At 08:57 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Ruth Kelly wrote:

The answers are CCA, but I'm last ;-) The hint for the last question lies in the first - a vector addition is called for. So we assume that the horizontal velocity remains constant, calculate the vertical component after accelerating under gravity, and add them up - easy.

But I agree that the wording was ambiguous. In fact, I think a huge difficulty with maths (and therefore physics) lies with language. The questioner has to be be able to state the question accurately, and the student needs to understand what's wanted. Our language, however, is known (enjoyed and celebrated, indeed) for its richness and flexibility, which doesn't suit the sciences, which call for precision. I can't tell you how many arguments I've had (usually with arty types) that resulted simply because I used a word to which I had assigned a precise definition... and they didn't even grasp the idea that you could do that. Try saying "stress" to (a) a mechanical engineer and (b) a non-engineer or scientist.

The final leap is solving a problem is the almost intuitive ability to write it down in such a way that it can be solved. I think this is tricky, and usually badly taught (if at all). I always found it hard, and had a special fear of "proof by induction" (remember that?) which seemed to require lateral thinking in a language (maths) that I really wasn't that fluent in.

Incidentally, I have a bachelors degree in engineering, and a masters in history. So I can do sums AND write. Let's hear it for a truly holistic education?

  • 80.
  • At 09:23 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Les Rial wrote:

I am one of the many non-graduate physicists who has taught to A-Level. I think it helps me to appreciate the difficulties that students face.

Good luck. If you are stuck, e-mail me. If I'm stuck I'll ask my graduate physicist son to help!

The terminology in your homework might confuse: m s-1 is another way of writing metres per second. Like all jargon, you get used to it.

You will need some basic trigonometry so it depends on whether or not you achieved a noble 'C' in maths as well as physics (and on how much you have chosen to suppress the memories).

If you want to retain the cultural aspect, many eminent mathematicians and physicists were (and are) French - read the originals.

Bon chance, mon brave!

Les Rial

  • 81.
  • At 09:31 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • John Filimon wrote:

Suprised? Not me.

I tried my hand at teaching in a school a couple of years ago (mathematics) and was shocked by the number of biology teachers trying to cope with physics. Their attempts to understand the fundamentals of physics was pityful.

Good physics/engineering graduates realise that there is more money to be made outside education (and why would anyone want to go into it with the behaviour of the students is beyond me now).

The Government has made the problem worse by making National Curriculum have all three sciences within.

No, if we want to change things we ahve to make physics and engineering more appealing (i.e stop the hundreds of students going into business courses across the country). Until there are differentials this problem will continue to exist.

Didn't the Americans invest heavily into science and engineering after the Russians launched their first probe? wasn't funding for these course made cheaper (subsidised?)

Ryan H is right! It was'nae my fault! They wrote the question wrong! (and I noted and forgave the mis-labelled gravitation force)

I still want to know the angle of bounce.

Give Newsnight an F!

  • 83.
  • At 10:32 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Grumpy Old Scientist wrote:

"assume uniform acceleration where relevant, and that the gravitational force is equal to 9.8 ms-1."

Eh? Who set this question, a "media studies" graduate? If the people who set the question get this stuff wrong, then we're all doomed....

  • 84.
  • At 10:52 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Mike wrote:

There is a shortage of physics graduates partially because physics graduates aren't paid enough. Surely raw economics suggests that if you can't get enough people with a qualification, that means you should offer a higher wage?

Perhaps physicists are paid less because their work often takes place some time before final product is produced, while the later steps in the process of making a saleable product, such as deciding what colour the logo should be, are overpaid?

  • 85.
  • At 11:14 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Dharma Mahesan wrote:


It should be pointed out the multiple choice exam for Physics A Level is only 1 of the 3 exams sat.

Its absolute nonsense to suggest the qualifications are any easier, no doubt in 20 years time the current a level students will be doing the same to whatever qualification replaces A levels.

  • 86.
  • At 11:32 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • John wrote:

I watched newsnight last night with great interest. It is very sad that 75% of schools do not have a specialist in physics. I have a PhD in physics and would dearly love to become a physics teacher but alas could not survive on the wages. It's okay to do a job that you like, but you gotta eat too! In the meantime, I will carry on in the research field.

  • 87.
  • At 11:52 AM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Nick wrote:

I am in the middle of my IB course, and although i recognise that the A-level course is (supposedly) more concise, i have repeatedly found that A-level students work at a substantially lower threshold compared to their International equivalents. I am dedicated to studying theoreticaal physics with mathematics at university, i guess im one of the rare ones...

  • 88.
  • At 12:10 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Lucia Dunbar wrote:

What!? answers to first question in ..degrees? What happened to the good old cos and sin ?
The second question actually gives you the Newtonian formulae that you should know already ?

I am actually against offering multiple choice questions in science for whatever exam. It encourages guessing and is totally unnecessary.

The logic of the answer is as important as the result and will be enough internal proof to a student. Furthermore, it is in practicing such logic and seing where we go wrong with it that we learn.

Note: IN LIFE we do not have ready answers to choose from! A scientist must be ready to face the unknown even in test questions!

Take heart, Steven. The test is not as difficult as you think. You can solve the first question graphically (use quad paper). The second is just a matter of deciding which u, v and a are which in your data and apply the formulae given. Remember that if one of these is not given it could be zero! For the last question you must remember the direction of the acceleration of gravity (goes down whilst the ball is initially moving across) and its value (look it up on the net). The acceleration of gravity works like any other acceleration: the movement across stops when the ball hits the ground.

Another tip: make sure the units balance in your equation- if they don't you are not multiplying or diving the right way.

Best of luck


  • 89.
  • At 12:19 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Paul wrote:

I don't believe that people who have science qualifications earn more than those who don't. I have been working in physics and engineering for 10 years and still earn below the nationl average wage.... I could easily earn more by driving a rubish collection lorry or any form of local govenrment job.

  • 90.
  • At 12:43 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Oliver Banks wrote:

You may say that it is easier, well it is. Thats because the test above is from the first lesson and exam questions can be much more difficult. You wouldnt expect a 16 year old to be learning string theory and rocket science on day one.

  • 91.
  • At 12:52 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • LCD (CPhys) wrote:

I wish to respond to some posts and the original programme commenting on 1) why there is a crisis in physics student numbers 2) whether physics teaching has been dumbed down ? 3) why don't we tell them about ' our atoms come from the stars' ? stuff to entice them to A-level.

1) Because our society does not value those who do but those who can consume - because we do not introduce young people to the addictive pleasure of being inquisitive - because we are too afraid to be honest about the fact that science studying is tough (so what ? a lot of tough things are worthwhile - try a musical instrument for a start)

2) Yes- because we are not very clear teachers and do not understand what IS difficult. It is not difficult to remember F=ma when you have understood what it means. But it is very hard if you have not understood. And because we thing multiple choice questions have any value in a scientific environment!

3) I would be put off if someone told me my atoms coming from the stars has anything to do with the beauty of science. The beauty of science is in understanding- it is in the rigor of the method and the inevitability of the consequences. It is in being able to handle uncertainty and lack of knowledge in the best way we can. It is in finding new relatinships between physical components of our world and, because of it, manage it(not necessarily control it) better.

I simpathise with the scientist who posted that he came to work in this country from outside. I did the same many years ago because my country neglects research. I could not face waiting 10 years at least for a science job to be offered to me. England gave me a chance and has benefited from the investment my country made in my knowledge(and the taxes my parents paid towards it).

Finally, I want to tell you a secret. I choose to do science because it is infinitely easier than art. You can self check if your answer is wrong - it just does not work, or it shows up inconsistencies. Being really good at art: that is so much more difficult..!

  • 92.
  • At 12:57 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Andrew wrote:

Just thought i'd say this is the first stuff you learn in AS physics. Yes it is like O-level because the old A-level was broken into AS and A2, the former to bridge the gap between GCSE and the latter to compensate was set to be slightly harder than the old style to compensate.

The reason this hasn't worked is that the tests are now modular, i.e you no longer need to remember the whole lot at once. Yes i do think it has become a easy( for the best) but the reason i believe is because the gulf between pupils can be huge(and political targets must be met), for e.g look at mathematics exam statistics.

Sorry if this has already been mentioned, just it seemed the was a lack of understanding of the current system in the earlier comments.

  • 93.
  • At 01:22 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Bob wrote:

If this is the current level of difficulty at A level then any student wanting to take a degree in Physics is going to wonder what the hell hit them. I don't think that this any where near adequate preparation for a taking a higher education course in the subject. For an indication of how bad things have got relatively recently - I took my A level physics exams only a decade ago and these questions look like GCSE exams in the mid nineties!

  • 94.
  • At 01:27 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • jake wrote:

What does it matter to all the old folk if science subjects have gotten easier. Its a sad life you lead if you have to degrade the efforts of current science students to make yourself feel better about how you did in your exams. As for current A level students why should you justify your efforts to old people looking at the past through rose tinted glasses. It seems to be just something that happens with old age but you always hear things like "it wasnt like that in my day" etc but rember its not your day anymore.May be towcestarian in 1976 people who took their O levels in 1956 thought that your course was very easy.Any way your maths is not great if you did your olevels in 1976 its 30 years not 25 years since.

  • 95.
  • At 01:58 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Chris wrote:

I did a degree in Physics, but now work in the financial sector. There were only 2 motivating factors behind this. Money and status. We live in a society now where selfish, overpaid imbeciles can sit at a computer moving money (which doesn't in reality exist anyway) from one place to another and still be regarded as "cool" and exciting. It may be seen as offensive to non-science students, but science is clearly something which requires unusual talents, not something that could be said of most non-science subjects. Until society realises that media and business studies students (for example!) are ten-a-penny, and should be treated as such, why would we expect young people to make it more difficult for themselves to succeed in life? Exam grades now permeate every young person's existence, and given the option of taking a simple subject most students make the, clearly logical, choice of shunning the more difficult subjects.
Every single person I met on my physics degree course would have had sufficient intellect to complete most of the other non-science courses offered, yet I doubt many humanities students (again, just an example!) could achieve a physics degree. I'm generalising hugely of course, so that may sound un-duly harsh, however I do believe it to be largely based in reality. Some non-science subjects do also require special talents, such as languages or music. They are perhaps also undervalued in society, however that's another arguement for them to persue.

  • 96.
  • At 02:24 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • John Naylor wrote:

Only three questions for homework? What good is that to a student? Leaving aside the poor wording of the questions (a teacher has a duty to ensure that all questions, particularly homework questions, are unambiguous and free from egregious mistakes), anyone who wishes to come to terms with a mathematical topic such as vectors should be given 15 or 20 varied problems of increasing difficulty to work through on their own. Only in this way can they build up understanding and confidence.

Of immediate relevance to the topic in this discusion: student's mathematical skills are in steep decline. These days very few students studying A level physics (or A level maths, for that matter) are completely at home with trigonometry, which makes teaching what should be a simple topic such vectors a labour of Sysyphus.

As for the shortage of physics teachers: I taught physics for 30 years and elected to retire early a couple of years ago. As a child I was drawn to the subject because it seemed to offer a rigorous account of the world. But as a teacher over the last decade I bored stiff by having less to teach (and that to a lower and less rigorous standard) every time the curriculum was revised. In my view, the high water mark of A level physics was in the early 80s when the exams really were a severe test of both pupil and teacher (the multiple choice questions were often more difficult than the written tests).

John N.

What matters, Jake, amongst other things, is that it is the old people who will be making the decisions about which school leaver to employ.

I'm pretty sure that from your standard of grammar, you passed your GCSE in English with flying colours, but if the exam results don't differentiate between your A grade and someone else, who is much less competent's A grade, then there's a 50/50 chance that you won't get the job you're better qualified for. If everyone gets an A grade, then there's no achievement at all.

In addition, we're constantly fed the lie that exams aren't being made easier, but that educational standards are improving. If the truth were admitted, that exams are easier (and frankly, the idea of a multiple choice exam comprising any part of a Physics A-level is all the evidence necessary), then perhaps people would be less bothered by it.

I'm not criticising you for the quality of education that you've received - if anything, you're an innocent victim of all of this.

I have changed my mind from earlier - can someone please tell me what is in a Physics GCSE?

  • 98.
  • At 03:18 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Nigel Baker wrote:

I really think we ought to ask Mr Mhlanga to clarify the questions.

As many people have noted, there is an error in one of the definitions, and the answers are (badly) rounded.

As for the last question, it is at best ambiguous.

I'd go for c, c and a as the answers, assuming the non-directional speed was what is required in the last question.

Perhaps it is the teacher who needs to go back to school, not the student?

  • 99.
  • At 03:39 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Jo Morley wrote:

The Physics "skills" being looked for in last night's homework would be incorporated in one question in the A-levels of the 60s.

You would be given a situation, for example a golfer hitting a ball off a cliff, then you would be asked progressively harder questions ... each requiring more and more in-depth knowledge of the underlying principles, but all linked to the initial situation.

There were hints. In the days before calculators, if the answer at any stage didn't come to a whole number then you would suspect that you had made a mistake.

I remember some weird things like someone being in a lift the cable of which suddenly snaps. The person in the lift doesn't panic. Nope, he suddenly starts juggling!

  • 100.
  • At 03:45 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • alan sharples wrote:

(1)9.43 N; 58.0°

(2) 1.8 km; 32 s

(3) 11.2 ms -1

I think a lot of the comment is premature.It is the beginning of the A'level course after all

Alan Sharples

  • 101.
  • At 04:08 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Gwilym Jones wrote:

i thought it was quite appropriate to show an insert of tensorial equations at the start. I think the point about it being easy because it is at the begining of a course is valid but it is also true that at one time students would be instantly doing this work without help because of the thorough grounding at o'level. it's like getting off on a technicality. i am wondering if the colored instructor you used would have been as competent in tensors as he was in vectors , i doubt it. the questions are of course trivial and it is obvious the the government has been covering over the cracks by continually moving the goal posts. my message to newsnight is " you can do better ", at least i hope you can.

  • 102.
  • At 04:44 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Chris wrote:

The answers by the way are CATEGORICALLY:

The first 2 are ridiculously simple, and the 3rd is only confused by the appalling wording used in the question.
Since exams do not include "trick" questions, the answer must be the combined vertical and horizontal speed which, using pythagoras, brings us to 17.9ms-1. To answer b) ignores the fact that the 3rd question is intended to use a combination of the techniques displayed in the first 2 questions. A common exam technique.

Also, as Ian points out, using anything but a standard bell-curve in order to set students grades is just plain spin-doctoring. Whether you like it or not, more people getting A-C grades does not mean they are better. (Note i'm not stating "cleverer" here. Exam technique also plays too much of a part in these test to indicate intelligence.)
Giving more students A-C grades is just a spin tactic to give the impression of standards improving. Where will it all end!? Will people realise the stupidity of this system only when every single child is in the A-C bracket? Or will they have introduced A-triple stars by then, a concept that was clearly invented by someone of sub-standard intelligence!!
Standards of knowledge of subjects are clearly not what they used to be. This doesn't denigrate the achievements of pupils, it just highlights what morons our politicians actually are.

  • 103.
  • At 04:51 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • P.L.Hayes wrote:

I suppose Newsnight's making light of this issue and the sloppy mistakes in the question text are to be expected given the poor quality of science reporting in the UK media and the scientific illiteracy in this country in general.

Congratulations to Nuvin (comment 58) for using a conservation principle rather than just plugging numbers into formulas. I hope he/she gets the prize and that the prize is the editorship of New Scientist ;-)

  • 104.
  • At 06:03 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Peter Bell wrote:

The item on "Can You Do My Homework" was moderately amusing but the accomanying discussion was the usual "blame the teachers" stuff.
Some of us do try to enthuse about this stuff, but the example lesson we were shown was hardly exciting.
Jonathon Osborne has been involved in science education for many years now but not as a teacher.
He, and many other "experts" keep adding still more to the teachers burden making it impossible to teach properly.
I'd like to see him even attempt a week on a full timetable.
It won't happen, experts rarely are that.
Any science teacher should be able to teach all of the three sciences at least up to Key Stage 3 and to basic standards at GCSE.
Unfortunately, there are teachers that teach nonsense, but quite a lot of this nonsense is from published sources.
As to the difficulty of science, it really is a bit much to claim that it is shocking that students find it difficult to understand "state of the art" seventeenth century science - maybe all physics books should be in lat.chiz.

  • 105.
  • At 06:28 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • towcestarin wrote:

I really must counter the scurrilous things some people are saying about scalars (esp Joe at 25). Entropy is far more interesting in every respect than boring old vectors like velocity. A scalar that in a closed system will only increase - how good is that! If nothing else it proves that gods don't exist - tell me one vector that can do that.

And for Sophie (35), I hope you are enjoying your non-elitist media studies course at what we used to call a poly. I suspect that later in life you will become part of the problem, not part of the solution.

  • 106.
  • At 06:52 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Paul wrote:

I am a A-Level Maths teacher and cover this content in the Mechanics module. What people fail to realise is that a question like this would be worth 1 or 2 marks of an exam. It would be interesting to give an entire question and see how people who did this 'in their O-Levels cope'. I could easily gain a couple of marks at the beginning of any exam and then complain at the standard.

  • 107.
  • At 07:12 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • David Brattle wrote:

I have been teaching Physics for 20 years. The content has indeed been watered down but i enjoy finding new applications of basic ideas. This year for the first time I am teaching a Salters A2 class and at last am able to bring in my Amateur Radio skills to help me teach FM and AM for example.
As for's pathetic. The new core science exam is nothing more than a memory test of simple facts.
Things have got to a stage that i dont even bother going into school early in August to check results as I know they will be better than last year and the year before etc etc.....not because I have improved as a teacher or that students are working harder than I ever did but because the bar has been lowered. I love the subject and how it ties in to my Christian faith but I am not interested in the grades any more. Yes, I want my students to achieve success, but I am happy if they have gained an insight into the workings of the world around them, have enjoyed doing so and have worked hard.
I once wanted to be a Head of Physics but I see my own HOD churn out policy documents, agendas for meetings, targets, cross curricular development plans...YAWN. I spend my time trying out new ideas and finding ways of integrating ICT into my teaching.

  • 108.
  • At 07:36 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Gwilym Jones wrote:

i realise the topic should be treated in a light hearted way to be consistent with the newsnight report, but just to say contrary to comment 102 that the speed at which it hits the ground should be taken as the vertical component and not the resultant velocity.the vertical component wil be the one that changes on impact whereas the horisontal component will (simply) remain unchanged.

  • 109.
  • At 08:07 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • towcestarian wrote:

Gwilym 108

I think its time for you to drop the reargard defence of your wrong answer. When you can't see out of the hole its best to stop digging.

The best way to look at this is as a scalar conservation of energy problem (as the great Nuvin at post 58 pointed out) rather than a vector kinematics problem. Final kinetic energy = initial kinetic energy minus change in geopotential energy. As energy methods will only give scalar results, it fits in with the wording of the question (asks for the speed not the velocity).

So apart from the mistake in the definition of acceleration (probably introduced by the innumerate Newsnight team), I now think the question is actually rather subtle (maybe unintentionally so), and anyone using scalars to solve it should be given extra marks. Like I said in post 105, scalars are just so NOT boring. Which reminds me of the use of virtual work in solving structural load problems.....yawn.

  • 110.
  • At 08:35 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Gwilym Jones wrote:

well i'm at a loss to see the sense in comment 109. as i have only just made the comment i can hardly see how i can be using a rearguard action to defend it. as you say the question is unintentionally subtle thro the use of the word "hit", implying as it does impulsive change, and of course the impulsive change occurs in the vertical, so the literal answer to the question is the vertical component of the velocity at the ground.whether one chooses a pe/ke approach or an impulsive motion approach is of no real consequence. anyway as i seem to have offended you i'll write no more.

  • 111.
  • At 08:49 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • towcestarian wrote:

Oops. Just spotted the howler in my last post. For "minus change in geopotential energy" please read "plus the reduction in goepotential energy".

I guess for us old fogey O Level crowd (thak you for your illiterate put-down, jake post 94), we should also say that we are ignoring the rotational speed of the earth in our calculations. Probaly OK at 14 m/sec, but certainly an issue if you are doing the sort of calculations that us old fogey engineers have to do for a living. Newsnght should give an extra prize for anyone who can remember how fast you have to be travelling just above the Earth's surface before you never hit the ground.

  • 112.
  • At 09:17 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Pdiddy wrote:

The reason that the questions are "pathetically simple" is because this is the first lesson taught in a level physics. Perhaps the reason young people do not wish to persue scientific careers is due to the arrogance of the 'clientele'.

  • 113.
  • At 09:25 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Yunus Aswat wrote:

Having a Physics degree I find many of the problems at work require simple solutions. Yes Physics is one of the most difficult subjects one can study and yes I found it very hard, but it really does pay off.

I find I can answer Physics questions easily and provide insight to those who don't understand science. I can pick up science journals and understand what the PhDs are talking about - it generally trains you into a higher thought level.

Most of all the subject trains your mind in a particular way to arrive at a solution, enhances creativity and the wow factor when I tell people what I studied.

  • 114.
  • At 09:33 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Gwilym Jones wrote:

as you say it is most simply solved by
v^2 = 2gh and our cultural correspondent referred to pe ke when visiting the dam in scotland. i was just taking a lead from 108. as you know if we take v^2 -u^2 = 2gs and multiply both sides by m/2 and take u= 0 we have mv^2/2 = mgs, which is the pe/ke argument, so in a trivial problem like this there is no real advantage in either approach. this is not to disparrage your argument as indeed if you have a problem in gravity or electromagnetism you are often well advised to solve for the potential then use field = - grad pe to get the field and avoid dealing with direction. anyway i'm a pensioner too so perhaps we're too old to be irritating one another, better off with a horlicks and going to bed.

  • 115.
  • At 10:35 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Chris Butterworth wrote:

Sorry but the horizontal speed would only be a red herring if the question had asked for the vertical component of the speed at which it struck the ground. C, C, A of course.

  • 116.
  • At 11:37 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Harvinder Bhamra wrote:

A levels are pretty easy nowadays, my mom sat them in the 1980s, when they were a darn sight harder...currently what im doing in school is...

Chemistry: Mass spectrometry and Titration
Biology: Enzymes and Cells
History: Russia and Weimar republics
Geo: No idea...

Chem and bio are really not hard subjects, all you need is common sense and memory skills, and your set... its not a case of knowing anymore, its a case of being the one that can remember the most...

science is no longer science...

  • 117.
  • At 12:17 AM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Chris wrote:

(c) (c) (a) are the only correct answers. I have a degree in mathematics, a masters degree in mathematics and theoretical physics and I'm studying for a PhD in applied mathematics, so you should believe me. I realise that an argument from expertise is far from logically sound, but sometimes you just have to listen to someone who knows more than you.

Question 3 asks for the "speed" which is a scalar quantity. The only sensible answer to give is the magnitude of the total velocity, which is another scalar. You'd be justified in giving the magnitude of the vertical component only if they'd specifically asked you for that.

P.S. My A Level in Physics, which I sat not too long ago, was certainly much harder than this. These three questions are far from a representative sample of a Physics exam.

  • 118.
  • At 01:27 AM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Richard George wrote:

One reason to do physics or maths is to work in finance, accountancy or some similar high paid profession.

There are a small number of technical-law jobs (eg patent law) open to people who have science backgrounds where technical
knowledge is important.

Otherwise it's a case of making a company and actually innovating if you want to get rich via science.

eg. ARM, Teraview, MX Telecom, Monstermob, all founded or now lead by engineering / physics / computer scientists in the UK.

Gwilym Jones said: "implying as it does impulsive change, and of course the impulsive change occurs in the vertical, so the literal answer to the question is the vertical component of the velocity at the ground."

Are you making the assumption that the ground is smooth and horizontal? Where in the question does it say that?

These questions are really about deduction and applying the correct mathematics (if you know it) to get to the right answer. These questions are very important in the context of the -exam- and to have a memory of when confronted with a similar problem in a real life situation in the future. But we must remember a fundamental thing. This is neither here nor there as far as what the real science of it is all about. By deductive logic if you know a lot of math and some physics, you will have a good chance of getting the right answer to these questions. That's it. The thinking required for the GCSE's that the kids are doing these days is geared for the final exams. It makes it look like there are no other ways to think. Oh dear, this is important. The kids believe this and they become uninterested in science. This not so good association is already made and it's too late. When kids do believe this (GCSE, exams, question- answer, no practical is science...etc) they end up thinking that science is just that, deduction or applied maths. The teachers know this isn't true, in fact so did Einstein and show frustration in teaching. The kids don't know any different and they later miss out on the science that is also about wonder and creativity or induction.

Of course having a qualification is paramount to getting ahead (earning lots of money, having status etc) this is the same in many other fields, but like art in some ways, it is the reason for which someone studies the science that lies in the truth behind that science or their science being studied, which is usually about the interest and love of it in the first place.


  • 121.
  • At 09:11 AM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • John Oversby wrote:

Fascinating reading demonstrating the inability of many correspondents to engage with the evidence about the questions and popularity of physical sciences. Grammar schools and independent schools that have separate sciences and stable science teaching staff have seen a drop in physics A level take up of 25-20% sinec 1990. We are all in some trouble. University physics graduates so often take up city or financial posts. Clearly, the university physics has not been so attractive as to attract them away from the obvious lure of money. We need to look at the reasons why so many take A level physics and so few wish to take up university physics, despite being taught by enthusiastic and well-qualified teachers, most of whom are from much earlier generations when physics was traditional. Finally, why do so few recent physics graduates wish to take up a career in teaching physics in schools? It is sad that so few wish to share their subject with the next generation. Is this a result of their university physics education?

  • 122.
  • At 09:29 AM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Mark Bailey wrote:

I hope the formulae given in the example, are NOT given in an exam. You might expect someone with a bit of physics knowledge to be able to derive them, and to UNDERSTAND them. Plugging the numbers into the equations and perhaps using one or two of the trig functions on your calculatotr, is neither "doing" physics, nor (more important at this stage) "understanding" it.

Oh, and the gravitational force isn't 9.8 m/s. That's the gravitational acceleration...

  • 123.
  • At 09:51 AM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Pete F wrote:

Complaining that 'arts' people dont appreciate science (physics in particular) is like complaining that night follows day (usually). Those of us who love physics need to do what we can to change the current disregard for a subject that is simply fundamental to our current way of life.
That the BBC is trying, desparately, to have a "science inclusion" policy is apparent. Unfortunately it is a little ham fisted. The BBC's leading science program Horizon has suffered as a result (in my opinion).
So what do we (physicists) need to do? Well at the age of 47 I'm trainng to be a teacher. I want young people to be inspired by somone who loves his subject. I regret not starting this process earlier.

  • 124.
  • At 09:59 AM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Stephen Beckett wrote:

Well I am currently sitting a Physics A level. The questions given to your reporter were ones I had to learn for my first AS module which I took back in January 06- hence why some readers are finding this simple.

A lot of people, myself included will see these questions as Maths (covered in Mechanics 1 AS module, June 06), which has also proved to be a poorly taught subject in some schools, though it is now improving. Improve the maths- and you will improve the physics...and maybe the other sciences as well.

At the moment in physics I am doing a self study option on Nuclear and Particle Physics. Physics is the subject I found most challenging and difficult at AS...but I had to carry on studying it at A2 in order to broaden my study of Mathematics with an AS in Further Maths as it wouldn't work with my timetable.

P.S. Gravitational acceleration is represented as 9.8 ms-2, gravitational force is more commonly known as weight. Physics A level has no multiple choice options.

  • 125.
  • At 11:12 AM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Ollie Glidewell wrote:

My first reactions to these questions were
1 - why are they being fed the equations?
2 - why the multiple choice?

With the multiple choice options, this take about 10 seconds a question to mentally work out the ballpark figure and then pick the option that fits.
As others have said, an exercise in plugging numbers into given equations is not physics.
It's like having "colour by numbers" in an art A-level practical.

  • 126.
  • At 11:37 AM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • P.L.Hayes wrote:

I think the once excellent Horizon programme was drained of its scientific content a long time ago and its empty skin refilled with televisual eye-candy coated "controversy", drama and sensationalism. I used to post on the BBC Science & Nature message boards (until the BBC ruined that too, despite the protestations of the community) and I remember there was so much anger and frustration with the decline of Horizon and the BBC's attitude and the arrogant responses from the programme makers to our criticism that there was talk of a petition and campaign. I just visited the Horizon web pages and watched some video clips of the Horizon boss and it seems the programme's still in the hands of someone with a greater love for the medium than for the science.

I generally agree with the various moans about Tim Smith's buffoonery. Can Newsnight not afford (or choose) to employ more than one science graduate? Presumably we didn't see Susan Watts doing this "report" because she would not buy this dopey idea. Is it not telling how Smith can't seem to get science (shame!) but Watts is perfectly capable of transferring her physics degree-based skills into general news reporting.

Ollie Glidewell wrote: ""this takes about 10 seconds a question to mentally work out the ballpark figure and then pick the option that fits.
As others have said, an exercise in plugging numbers into given equations is not physics.""

If plugging numbers into an equation is not physics, then why does it matter that you don't have to plug numbers into equations, and can work out a ballpark figure in your head? Surely that's a better physics skill than the ability to sit down with a raft of equations and a calculator? In fact, does the ability to work out the ballpark answer in your head suggest a better understanding of the equations and the question, than if you'd had to sit down with the algebra and blindly plug numbers in? (I don't know!)

""It's like having "colour by numbers" in an art A-level practical.""

So it's a good job that these are only (apparently) 'homework' questions and *not* the actual exam, then, isn't it?

  • 129.
  • At 12:59 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Felix wrote:

C C and A!
I am doing a physics degree, had to do q3 three times, to get it right. First, I forgot how to change the subject, 2nd, I forgot to square using pythagoras.

Well, simple elementary mistakes.

Wahoo! Also, the multiple choice made it easier, since the claculations for the 2nd part was made redundant after I calculated the 1st part. So, multiple choice is a bad idea, using show that questions are used.

I love "show that" questions, because its harder and easier at the same time.

  • 130.
  • At 01:30 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Darren Stephens wrote:

Good, a few of us seem to have got c,c,a so I don't feel all that dumb. I do feel rusty after all this time but should have been ok because I did a Physics degree. Now working in computing in the university sector and only have to do 'hard sums' sometimes. Even undergraduates don't like them very much now.

The fact is, although Science is rewarding and can be fun, it is hard. That's because you need a solid base of knowledge from which to work and solve problems. Without this, you can't really do anything and that needs a lot of hard work to learn. I think that's why I have serious misgivings about the new science GCSE syllabus and it's rather more nebulous approach to science in general.

  • 131.
  • At 01:59 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Karl Dodd wrote:

I am currently studying A level physics. I admit that these equations are the easiest that you will cover. However, I have noticed that students from other countries at my college find solving/ rearranging equations far easier than British students. Also students who stay here for their education continue on to A2, whilst those who took G.C.S.E's here often leave physics.
P.S. One of the main reasons that I continued physics is because I had a fantastic science teacher at G.C.S.E. otherwise I too may have been one of the millions who reject the sciences.

  • 132.
  • At 05:23 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • P.L.Hayes wrote:

Working through these problems in one's head is better mental arithmetic rather than better physics but there isn't much scope in them for demonstrating a grasp of physical concepts anyway. Since it was I who first brought up the issue of "plugging numbers into formulas", I think I should say I didn't mean it as a disparagement of the questions themselves - I was talking about something else altogether: Nuvin found a way to use a physical concept that is not even taught, AFAIK, until after the vector/scalar and kinematics parts of the course and I took advantage of his/her use of a conservation principle purely to have a dig at New Scientist. There is nothing wrong with the fact that the formulae are given and the questions are trivial and easy: that is exactly what I see in the relevant sections of an old A-level text book*, for example, and I don't suppose it's much different in any other school or college.

* Although looking through this 15 year old text book I find there is a lot I don't like about the content and its presentation. For a start, the lack of rigour and clarity in its treatment of vectors and scalars seems almost deliberately designed to confuse. The whole book/syllabus? is rather dated and dull and wholly uninspiring - a far cry from something like Motion Mountain - and I hope today's A-level text books are better.

  • 133.
  • At 05:38 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • no name wrote:

Its all very well saying that these questions are easy and A level standars are going down every year.
First of all, these types of questions students usually get as their number 1 question in the first AS module for physics.
Also allmost every single exam board does written questions. For instance on my A level papers there are no multiple choice questions at all. You never seem to get them. The first question might be: define momentum for 1 mark.

  • 134.
  • At 05:40 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • no name wrote:

It’s all very well saying that these questions are easy and A level standards are going down every year.
First of all, these types of questions students usually get as their number 1 question in the first AS module for physics.
Also almost every single exam board does written questions. For instance on my A level papers there are no multiple choice questions at all. You never seem to get them. The first question might be: define momentum for 1 mark.

  • 135.
  • At 05:54 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Ruth Kelly wrote:

Well John (post 121) - I too have been amused and frustrated at our collective inability to answer the real question. I tried... all the way back at post no.3. Maybe I was just too cynical!

Why don't physics graduates want to teach? Would -anybody- want to teach -anything- today?

  • 136.
  • At 05:58 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • A Barnett wrote:

Thank Albert that we have such a lively debate. I thought for a while that the Physicists had all turned into accountants, computer scientists (like me) and others. But at least we can eh?
So newsnight and others, get the message - Science is hard, dedicated and produces the high flyers in your viewers, and we are watching you.
Science ROCKS!
The argument is simple really, either we do science properly or we lose it all together. As a nation that led the world into the greenhouse gas age, we need to be the ones to lead it out again, so all you Physicists who can, get into alternative energy quickly and intermediate technology work. We need you more than ever now or Gaia will dispose of the lot of us.
Is J.E.Lovelock is a Physicist? Anyhow, if you are doing A-level or degree physics, make sure you read his book Gaia. There are many opportunities now for Physics to save mankind - again!
Do you need another reason to study this subject properly!

  • 137.
  • At 08:35 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Caroline wrote:

I'm currently studying A2 Physics, and there's a lot I feel I want to clear up here.

1. In no part of my physics A Level do I have multiple choice options.

2. SUVAT equations are the very basics of the phyics A Level, even us A Level students find them easy, so don't go blaming us, not our fault that they're in the syllabus.

Also, we spent one lesson doing those types of questions, and then went on to other stuff.

3. To all of you older folk moaning that everything's easier, I would just like to say can't we agree that it's just different?! I mean, my first AS physics module was on Particle physics and quantum phenomna - stuff only just researched in the 20th century!

Fair enough, I have noticed that now in A Level physics you're not required to derive that many equations, and you are given most equations on a data sheet, but really, what is the point of mindless regurgitation of equations anyway, when you can have them at hand? Just because I am given the equations in my exam, that does not mean I don't know them off by heart.

Anyway, I've said enough. I think to some extent the A Level has got easier, but I certainly had to work for my A at AS so no old fogey is going to stop me feeling proud about it.

RE P.L.Hayes: Ok, you're right it is basically just mental arithmetic! Though in the context of these exercises, it's still probably better than a calculator :)

""Since it was I who first brought up the issue of "plugging numbers into formulas", I think I should say I didn't mean it as a disparagement of the questions themselves""

There were quite a few other people that couldn't work out why anyone would want simple exercises to drum expressions into someone's head. In the sense of these suvat equations (s, u, v, a, t) I would hope that the students were tasked to derive them at some point... But once you've done that, it's really essential that simple relationships like this are committed to memory... Physicists/engineers aren't going to spend the rest of their lives simply working out "if a bullet is fired from a horizontal gun barrel at x m/s...", but they might need to be able to manipulate suvat in the context of a wider, more difficult problem... And it's pointless to have to take a step back to think about the equations (which, admittedly, are probably derivable in one's head) each time you have to call on them... (If you don't have the memory for it, that's one thing... But if you do...)

Though having said that, I massively agree that there is too-much drumming of equations, and not enough really taught at A(S/2)-level that actually gets people thinking... (I burbled on about this on another BBC news forum recently, I think). Too much of the A-level specification is presenting 'black-box' formulae into which students are supposed to plug numbers with no real understanding of where the formulae come from or what they really mean. I disagree that everything should be /purely/ concepts and no equations (as some people seem to want to suggest); at some point you'll have to use equations to Get The Job Done, plus mathematical analysis /can/ provide insights that aren't necessarily obvious just from a first principles thought experiment.

  • 139.
  • At 09:42 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Robert Massey wrote:

Re: Alan Sharples
If the "Alan Sharples" of Comment 100 is the same Dr. Sharples of NM Tech's math department, then I say, "What a pleasant surprise to know that you're still kicking around." (The math dept was the best part of NM Tech.)

P.S. Question 3 seems to me to be ambiguous. Depending on one's interpretation of "speed at which it strikes the ground" the answer could be a or b. Please tell me you'd give full credit for either.

P.P.S. Bush and all his Bushites are high vacuum.

  • 140.
  • At 09:44 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Semantics wrote:

The technique for in aswering multiple choice is to eliminate the incorrect answers. This can usually be done without solving the problem. For example, in 1. the sum of the squares is less than 100, therefore the answer is c) and in 2, approximate acceleration to 3 m/sec2 and take-off speed to 100 m/sec (both reduced by about 10%) so the result is c).

With regard to question 3, there have been assertions that some answers are incorrect. Actually the question is ill defined. It does not ask for the speed as the object hits the ground, which would be a). It asks for the speed with which it strikes the ground and it is clear that the horizontal velocity component does not contribute to the striking force. However, students should not be exposed to uncertainties and the question should be expressed clearly. If the question ere not multi-choice, it would be possible to give both answers specifying which applied to which interpretation.

On the point at issue aout the lack of students studying physics, I feel that many of our gifted students will have an eye on where large salaries are available, in the city or as accountants etc. Many of the less gifted will doubtless become plumbers. Scientists can only have limited influence on their career prospects, being dependant on industry or the government to initiate activity. With the privatisation of the research institutes and the decline of manufacturing, the prospects look bleak.

  • 141.
  • At 10:52 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • P.L.Hayes wrote:

Matt Brown, have you seen Christopher Schiller's marvellous book?

Of course I'm not suggesting it as a suitable textbook for A-level physics but when I dragged that old textbook I spoke of out of the closet and looked at it, I was rather unpleasantly surprised.

Question 3 is not ambiguous. This is kinematics not dynamics and when the ball hits the ground it has just one velocity and one speed and the speed is expressly asked for - not some component of its velocity. Even if the students had already studied some dynamics, there is no mention of mass, momentum or force (okay, there is but it's obviously an error) and no meaning to the concept of velocity contributing to a striking force anyway.

  • 142.
  • At 11:54 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Gwilym Jones wrote:

i think the answer as the instructor intended it is the resultant , whereas the literal answer (simply) is the vertical component. i think physics is the hardest subject as the building blocks have to be learned, whereas say in biology the bulding bocks can well be things already learned from real life, my daughter (chemistry teacher) was saying how kids do better when she sometimes teaches biology than in chemistry.i think one of the reasons for school physics decline is maths teaching being skewed wrt the reqirement of physics. i think we must be careful not to put down the equation approach, as the abilty to make associations can give progress, the general theory of relativity is one example where an association was made between the energy momentum tensor and einstein tensor. not long ago i was watching the bbc programme on rogue waves where the frequency of occurence was better predicted by a quantum mechanical model, which made (at least in my mind) an association to geometrical algebra and it's ability to present some quantum effects in a classical way.i was looing at the dark matter comes out the cold article on the bbc site some time ago and it made in my mind a tentative association to string properties, so i think equations and associations they may allow us to make are really important.

  • 143.
  • At 05:26 AM on 27 Oct 2006,
  • Nikki wrote:

As someone also doing A2 Physics, I have to agree that that isn't representative of A-level Physics today. Vectors and equations of motion are only the first thing we cover at the beginning of A-level, it's not even full AS-level standard. Also, we never get multiple choice questions. This is a poor attempt at proving the worth of an A-level today. Maybe the critics should sit an actual exam and find out what it's really like.

  • 144.
  • At 05:52 AM on 27 Oct 2006,
  • Bob wrote:

if physics is such an important subject, why is there insufficient funding from the government for higher education in the field of physics? why are there no financial incentives for young people to study physics? why does my university (reading) have to close it's physics department due to financial reasons, if physics is so important to this country? further more, i would like to add that i find the language used i many of the a-level physics papers to be ambiguous and misleading. what we need are questions which test the students knowledge of physics, not their interpretation of a question which is badly written.

anyway, anyone who thinks they can sit on their ivory tower claiming that physics exams are easy or simple, well, frankly you can f**k off, because what we need right now is degree level educated physicists, and trashing the subject is no way to persuade people that science is a worthwhile career choice.

so, i think we can establish that criticism of people that study physics really isn't going to encourage more people to study the subject.

Silent Bob

  • 145.
  • At 10:35 AM on 27 Oct 2006,
  • Semantics wrote:

To assert that there is no ambiguity when several obviously intelligent people have come to a different conclusion is somewhat arrogant. The use of "strike" implies a force. I would not mind going 15 rounds with Mike Tyson at his best if all his blows had no normal component to my person but only brushed me. Worried about my ears, though.

Had the question stated "What is the speed of the ball on reaching the ground?" there would be no confusion. Sadly, precision in expression has greatly deteriorated and not only among scientists. And do not get me started about the standard of grammar displayed throughout the media, in particular the use of the personal pronoun. There is also a widespread tendency to use expressions which are inferior to the old e.g. "fed up off" instead of "fed up with".

If I had my way, latin would be compulsory for all.

""whereas the literal answer (simply) is the vertical component""

That's still assuming that the ground is horizontal in the first place.

""To assert that there is no ambiguity when several obviously intelligent people have come to a different conclusion is somewhat arrogant.""

But it's only "ambiguous" because people are insisting on injecting completely arbitrary assumptions into the problem. Those being (i) that the ground is flat (or, in fact, trying to worry about the topology of the ground in the first place) and (ii) that 'strike' is some kind of technically defined quantitity which can only describe an impulse applied normal to a surface.

""Matt Brown, have you seen Christopher Schiller's marvellous book?""

I have now :) It looks pretty fantastic :) Thanks for the link...

""i would like to add that i find the language used i many of the a-level physics papers to be ambiguous and misleading.""

Most exam papers seem to be written by morons. Whenever there are criticisms of exam standards, the exam boards are the one thing that never really seem to get mentioned (directly)... Where do they come from? Who gives them the right to define national qualifications (particularly since they seem to be so inept at the job)? Why are they incapable of proof-reading exam papers /before/ they're distributed to schools?... etc...

Is the reason that people are put off physics because it's a subject in which it's possible to be wrong? Chemistry and biology (maybe more so at GCSE than A-level) is mostly learning facts... But being able/inable to recall facts is different to being right/wrong about applying your mind to a physical problem. Similarly, in the humanities, essentially any answer is correct. You get credit merely for using your brain to write something self-consistent. Consistency with anything else is not important. I'm not sure people necessarily reject physics at A-level (say) because they don't think it'll get them a job. I think it's entirely because they perceive it as being too demanding. And, because they're worried about the right/wrong thing and not interested in the fact (and not taught) that being wrong can be a benefit if it means that you're using your brain---in the process---to explore something... ie, the problem is that students (at GCSE, say) aren't taught the true meaning of physics, which is to try and get inside the workings of the universe. It's generally presented as though the workings of the universe are already known, completely, and that therefore there's no point being inquisitive and worrying about it. They either don't necessarily realise that, actually, you /do/ need to try and get inside the workings of things (usually, off your own back) in order to try and understand what you're being taught, or get put off because when they /are/ being inquisitive, they get knocked down by teachers to whom the exam specification is all that they need to teach anybody...

  • 148.
  • At 09:37 PM on 27 Oct 2006,
  • keith heron wrote:

How to help you to learn the correct approach to physics? Just giving the answers doesn't always help understanding. Consider each concept or section like a building block which you can then use with other blocks to construct your answers. Mostly the difficulty in answering these problems is about an understanding of the units eg Newton and language of physics which has very clear definitions. For example the weather forcast might describe a wind from the south west at 11 km per hour, this is a vector because it has both direction and magnitude. A length of wood of magnitude 600 mm is a scalar quantity (we don't know its direction).
Secondly a knowledge and fluency in mathematics: algebra, arithmetic, trigonometry, roots etc is required.

In the first question the two forces (in Newtons) 8N and 5N are vertical and horizontal respectively so they form the sides of a right angled triangle with the resultant as the hypotenuse. Whenever there are right angled triangles think Pythagoras ie the resultant (hypotenuse) will be the square root of the sum of the squares, the sum of 64 added to 25 is 89 and its square root is 9.43 (with a unit of N). This is its magnitude.
Next the trigometric functions come into play, the Sine of the angle the resultant makes to the horizontal force is given by the ratio of the oppposite (vertical) force 8N to the resultant (hypotenuse) 9.43N force. To obtain the angle directly we have use the inverse of Sine called the Arcsine function. To complicate matters these operations have to be performed in radians rather than degrees. Most calculators will take this into account but its worth being aware that a complete circle of 360 degrees is also two PI radians; so multiply any degree value by 180 over PI to convert to its radian value. PI is that strange number 3.14 with an infinity of trailing extra numbers which allows us to calculate circumferences and areas of circles. So if we Arcsine the ratio 8 over 9.43 expressed in radians we get as a whole number 58 degrees. This is the direction of the force. So both these answers mean this is a vector quantity.
In the second question the secret is to first get the time to reach the take-off velocity. In physics velocity and speed are like vectors and scalars, ie speed only having magnitude but they are often interchanged. Although not stated the initial velocity is assumed to be zero, (u=0 ms-1). Using the first motion equation given (with acknowledgement to Sir Isaac). Rearranging then the time elapsed is given by the ratio of the final velocity divided by the acceleration. We also have to perform the arithmetic on the units as well, the units have a strange shorthand such as ms-1 this simply means metres per second but is again one of those aspects of maths and science that need to be understood. The m on the top and bottom cancel and disappear and the s-1 and s-2 give the reciprocal s-1 which is the same as s (second). Therefore the time is 32s (to a whole number of seconds). Here an understanding is required of the use of the word displacement which in this case is the physics term for distance along the runway. Using the second equation supplied and substituting the final velocity and time calculated we obtain an answer of 1779m which is rounded up and expressed as 1.8km.

Finally the third question is a bit of a trick as the vertical component and horizontal components of objects dropped on planets are completely independent. So the impact velocity will be the same as if the object were just dropped. If two objects were released at the same instant from the leaning tower of Pisa, one dropped and one thrown they would both hit the ground at the same time. The initial horizontal velocity of 14 ms-1 is only useful in being less than 11200 ms-1 which is the escape velocity from the Earth when the above would not apply!
So only the the vertical aspect is relevant here. Here displacement is the height of the released object. So substituting in the fourth motion equation gives the square root of 125.4 which is 11.2 ms-1 as the impact velocity.
Hope this helps.

  • 149.
  • At 01:41 AM on 28 Oct 2006,
  • KC Lee wrote:

From the limited glimpses of the lesson shown, it seemed that the teacher simply tried to explain what a vector is and how to perform caculations with them, without really explaining WHY it's so useful and when to use them, or the physical ideas behind a problem that require the use of vectors.
I feel sorry for Stephen who's thrown into the deep end straight away. The fact is, maths is just a tool. With physics, you could (and should) only do the maths if you can see in your mind and understand intuitively what would happen. The maths is a way of getting accurate answers out, but on its own not enough to give answers in the first place.
The 3 homework questions prove my point: knowing just the formulas relating speed/acceleration etc without knowing how they come about would serve to confuse, esp. when it's given in so many different forms; also, there'd be no hope for someone to do qu 3 unaided if he/she did not have an intuitive understanding of how Forces work AND how vectors are used to describe them.

  • 150.
  • At 03:03 AM on 28 Oct 2006,
  • Livid wrote:

For all those saying only the vertical component of the velocity matters then I'm afraid you're all wrong ;)

The ball will continue to have horizontal velocity after striking the ground. If you imagine what happens when you throw a ball across the floor it doesn't bounce vertically upwards after striking the ground. It still has a horizontal velocity. The question isn't asking for any reductions in speed due to inelastic collisions and friction. Not that this has, in any real sense, a total negating effect on the horizontal velocity - unless there's a wall impeding the motion!

  • 151.
  • At 09:23 AM on 28 Oct 2006,
  • P.L.Hayes wrote:

"You can lead an astrophysics, but you can't make it blink." -- Dot Product.

"Ain't that the truth." -- Galileo Galilei.

  • 152.
  • At 11:47 AM on 28 Oct 2006,
  • Jo Morley wrote:

Keith (148),

Why acknowledge Sir Isaac for the first motion equation?

That equation was well-known years before he was looking at apples.

The first equation is the definition of simple acceleration, a=(v-u)/t.

If anyone should be acknowledged it should be Galileo, surely?

  • 153.
  • At 12:34 PM on 28 Oct 2006,
  • Semantics wrote:

There seems to be an unwillingness to accept that an alternative, widely held view, has merit. It is clear that everyone understands the principles involved. Those favouring the "impact" or vertical speed are accused of making assumptions about the flatness of the ground. If the ground were not flat, the problem would be insoluble.

The real culprit is the person who wrote the question. An alert student will make sure that he understands the question. The thought process might be along the lines; "The path will be similar to that of a ball bowled at cricket. Does the use of "strike" mean that the answer is the vertical component? If so, why has the horizontal launch speed been given? To get the speed at the moment of reaching the ground I only need to obtain the resultant of two orthogonal components, which I have demonstrated that I can do in question 1. Perhaps the horizontal velocity is there to confuse me and to see if I realise that it can be ignored in calculating the vertical component."

It is totally unreasonable that a student be put in such a position. It is not helped by the fact that the reults of both interpretations are offered as possible solutions. There could be no confusion if one of these had a different value.

  • 154.
  • At 03:43 PM on 28 Oct 2006,
  • Felix wrote:

The answer to the third is A, need to use pythagoras.

Speed is the magnitude of the vector.
Both vertical and horizontal. EVEN if one of the components turn out to be zero, its the sum that counts.

Unless I am proven wrong, the answer is A.

  • 155.
  • At 09:02 PM on 28 Oct 2006,
  • Andrew wrote:

Maybe this is an indication of how recent improvements in exam-driven teaching has improved results. The answer to Q3 is undeniably (a). Of course, with full working you'd probably be covered but the progression of the questions and experience of similar problems would lead you straight to the appropriate conclusion. More typically you might expect to be asked how far (horizontally) from the point of release did it first hit the ground, but it's a classic problem and they wanted to work in pythagoras and vector components.

Incidentally, while energy is always a fun approach, surely it is effectively equivalent in this case, and in fact no calculation is required at all with the choices provided.

Re Stephen Smith piece on Physics

As a physics graduate ( teacher for 5 yrs) from the early eighties I watched
with interest; keeping things brief here I heard the site
mentioned and never having seen it looked at it for the first time, after
which I am considerably concerned.

Essentially I believe I can create a realistic alternative, I was wondering
if anyone else has made similar comments , proposals.
I see it is a business, charging colleges about £400 a year.
As I am not a subscriber I cannot actually see exactly what you get for that money.
As a professional Web developer with 20+ years IT experience I believe can infer from the free-pages the likely standard within.

Alarm bells went off in my head when I heard we are around eight thousand
physics teachers sort.
I am currently writing a content management system for my own company, Webica ltd, and know it could be rapidly adapted to suite the needs of an alternative, much improved site.

I have forgotten a lot of my syllabus, fortunately, and so it is with great excitement and enthusiasm I too plan to "redo the course work" except I will be publishing my struggles, in a state of the art system as I go along. I would be grateful if at this stage you could acknowledge having read this far.

p.s. I would appreciate any help in being able to view the actual site as experienced by teachers and pupils in a school that uses it; this wold be a commercial venture for me so I would be in competition with

regards John Mulkearns
( watching on a short holiday, on broadband from a hotel room in Santa Pola, Alicante, Spain )

""If the ground were not flat, the problem would be insoluble.""

OK, good point ;) My other point still stands :)

""There seems to be an unwillingness to accept that an alternative, widely held view, has merit.""

The alternative, widely held view may very well be 'correct', in the sense it might very well be the answer Mr Mhlanga was after in the first place. I'm just unwilling to accept that there's any point in trying to invent new physical quantities / arbitrarily rewrite the question yourself just to try and justify it. The question is crap, that's really all there is to it...

  • 159.
  • At 09:44 AM on 30 Oct 2006,
  • Andrew wrote:

"The alternative, widely held view may very well be 'correct', in the sense it might very well be the answer Mr Mhlanga was after in the first place. "

Trust me, it wasn't. I'm not saying you wouldn't get any credit for it, or that the question is poorly written - but were it an exam question you'd have no recourse and so you'd have to give the answer they wanted, which for Q3 ia (a). No redefinitions or rewriting, simply the required answer. But as I aid before, you'd hope to have written the answer well enough to avoid any confusion in any case.

""If the ground were not flat, the problem would be insoluble.""

OK, good point ;) My other point still stands :)

I want to take that back. That's not true ;)

The answers to the questions (which were copied from the paper given to Steve as homework) are:

1 - C
2 - C
3 - A

The first correct answer was No. 11, Stephan.
Email us at: to claim your prize...

This was from Steve's first lesson in A' Level Physics, so I think it is fair to say that it is not representative of the level of difficulty he will encounter in the rest of the course.

  • 162.
  • At 01:08 PM on 04 Nov 2006,
  • Jerry Pepin wrote:

I think the media is allowing the wool to be pulled over its eyes by British Industry. The focus has been on how schools can improve their Physics output. When I was awarded a PhD in Physics in 1990 I was unable to find a job in Physics. I was also unable to find any other job except teaching, being told I was over-qualified. During five years teaching A Level Physics we were only able to keep the course going because of the Asian students. The Thatcherite "fast buck" philosophy, embraced by the CBI, encouraged people to value hard work and education less; students, accordingly, stopped wasting their time on difficult subjects like Physics and instead gravitated toward economics and business studies, subjects that led to jobs.

All a long time ago, I hear you say. The cultural legacy of the eighties, unlike the disastrous economic model, is difficult to shift away from. In any case I see no evidence of real change from business. There are no more job vacencies advertised in the IOP magazine now than there were 15 years ago and almost all of those are poorly paid accademic posts.

I now trade shares for a living. I make money but I make no contribution to society despite having been trained to a high level at great expense to that society. This isn't a schools problem, this is a business problem. When British industry starts genuinely to value Physics degrees, like Germany, like India, like China then the Physics classes will be full.

  • 163.
  • At 12:54 PM on 05 Nov 2006,
  • Nick wrote:

The irresolvable problem with science education is that to do real science you need to have already had an education in science. The really exciting thing about science is discovering something, even something small, about the universe that no one else has ever known before. Very few people will be able to do that until, at the earliest, the final year of an undergraduate degree. However, the process of understanding the world can still be interesting in itself, but, as presented in school science, it very rarely is.

That problem is being compounded by the current practice of teaching to the exam. Teaching first year physics undergraduates has shown me that most A-level students have no real understanding of what they've studied. That isn't a criticism of the students, it's a criticism of the teaching - and mostly of the system that encourages that kind of teaching. It's possible to write varied and interesting questions on the basis of A-level physics not hugely more advanced than that given above (even questions that an academic theoretical physicist would have to think about can be constructed), but, in A-level exams, students are always presented with exactly the same type of problem. So, under the current system of league tables and targets, they are taught to answer that type of problem rather than to understand the concepts behind it. Repeatedly doing one thing you don't understand with only some minor variations is extremely boring, so it's not at all surprising that most students don't want to do it.

The odd thing about this is that this kind of qualification appears to have been introduced to make things easier - and to encourage people to study science. It appears to me to have had the main effect of making the subject extremely dull and putting people off studying science.

  • 164.
  • At 04:27 PM on 14 Nov 2006,
  • John, Sevenoaks wrote:

Though insignificant in relation to the 'ball hitting the ground', surely there is an element of 'the ground hitting the ball'.

Also, if it were a cricket ball, can you explain any reverse swing effect?

  • 165.
  • At 11:34 PM on 21 Nov 2006,
  • Sebastian wrote:

As a current Physics student at Imperial College, and having somewhat recently passed A-Level Physics, I know the way the current system works.

It's rubbish. Physics A-Levels are horribly easy and light-on-the-ground, and the Maths A-Levels are being made easier all the time. When I took A-Level Maths, I took 3 modules. The next year, students took 2 for the same A-Level. Things got drastically easier! This is an issue, and as we saw in the video, a lack of mathematical ability directly corresponds to a lack of ability in the Physical Sciences. The two are inextricably linked!

In terms of raising application numbers onto Physics there are some great efforts being made by the Institute of Physics in this realm. Ultimately, though, many of us cannot say why they are low and sinking.

In terms of raising application numbers to teach Physics, though, I can comment. After 4 years of degree-level mathematics, cosmology, string theory, quantum mechanics, and all the other cutting edge drivers of the progress of humanity, why should I turn around, throw it all neatly into the bin, before pursuing a low-paid career teaching troubled students who don't wish to be in class (as the case in a state comp like mine is). On one hand I have a variety of offers that build on and utilise the skills I've acquired on my degree. The City, Entrepreneurship, a PhD or Research Work. All of these require high-level skills in mathematics, logic, clear reasoning, and physics itself. Most of them pay very well, and can only lead onto greater heights of professional and academic accomplishment. But teaching? Low pay, having to learn a new set of people skills, using none of the Physics knowledge you've learned on your course (probably even less, as Physics qualifications get easier) and little chance of significant promotion once past head of department or headmaster? Teaching requires a certain, special type of person. One who did a degree for little reason than for personal interest, who has no issue in never using the knowledge again. The type of person who can selflessly pursue a career in which the greatest benefit is not for themselves, but for their pupils. That is a very special sort of person, and that type of person either needs to be cultivated or born into it.
My recommendation is that Physics teachers are made a far, far better offer. If our pupils need to be taught by Physicists, then why not hire research students part time? Why not hire professors for one year at a time? For recruiting Physics graduates for life, though, the offer has to be raised. Better pay, better conditions, better prospects. I won't consider teaching otherwise, and I'm afraid teaching out of pity or sense of duty isn't a dealmaker.

well as im currently doing a pgce in science teacher training, i think that your comments of dumbing down are adding to the situation. Yes they might be easier than 'in your day' but who are these comments helping.
As i am cuurently studing the -impact that science is hard to children and is causing them not to opt for these choices at GCSE and Alevel- how is making them feel inferior going to help! I dont personally believe in multiple choice as an option for this part of physics - but as differentiation within classes is so high what else can be done??? There is no quick solution.
Children are also not opting for science as its not as glam as other career paths! Teaching is not paid enough for scientist to opt for unless you want to make a difference- dont get me wrong im no martyr- but maybe if the generation of '0levelers' who find this science so easy- had spent more time trying to pass their knowledge on the education wouldnt be in the state its in!And as a biologist i wouldnt have to be teaching Physics GCSE!!!!! Imaginetly may i add to get these concepts across to a desensitised world- im sure a ripple tank was exciting and motivating in 1980- cos it aint anymore!!!!

  • 167.
  • At 10:48 PM on 29 Nov 2006,
  • Semantics wrote:

I supose that everyone has lost interest and maybe is awaiting something more challenging. However, since no-one else has commented on Matt Brown's volte-face at post 160.

If I read him correctly he does not accept that the ground has to be flat. It is, of course an implicit assumption in the question that the ground is flat because the height through which the ball has fallen when reaching the ground can only be equal to the height above the ground from which it was released, no other information being give.

It is, of course, theoretically possible that the ground is not flat but undulates in a way such that the ball falls the correct distance but stikes a slope. However, the nature of such a trivial problem as the one set rules out such an interpretation. It would, in any case be difficult realise in practice.

  • 168.
  • At 04:36 PM on 01 Dec 2006,
  • Jonathan Morley wrote:

That was a waste of time, wasn't it? Is he ever going to follow this up?

>> It is, of course, theoretically possible that the ground is not flat but undulates in a way such that the ball falls the correct distance but stikes a slope.

Sort of... My argument was that the only assumption the question is really allowing you to justify is that the ground level is the same at the point when it hits the ground (otherwise the question would in insoluble). It's probably reasonable in the scope of the question to assume that it's flat until this point. But, beyond the impact point, the ground can do anything. If the ball strikes the ground at the exact foot of a hill, then it may rebound at an angle away from the vertical. My point was trying to be that the question is asking for as simple an answer as possible. Which means that it was asking for the speed at which it hits the ground, and not the vertical velocity component. ie, Don't try and invent new concepts in physics, just because you like the sound of the answer better... Just answer the question.

Sorry if this was offensive. Perhaps I got carried away :)

  • 170.
  • At 10:18 AM on 02 Dec 2006,
  • Felicity wrote:

Is there a help-line for teachers with homework? I have corrected 28 essays this morning and every single one of my pupils has written jaimais instead of jamais.

  • 171.
  • At 02:39 PM on 08 Dec 2006,
  • Les Rial wrote:

So what's happenning, Steve?

Have you given up already?

Has your teacher got fed up of the criticism based on a two-minute snap-shot and an initial homework?

Isn't physics teaching newsworthy any more?

  • 172.
  • At 11:53 PM on 11 Dec 2006,
  • Ivor Matheson wrote:

The first question states "vertical" and "horizontal" which has nothing to do with North and South.
The third question is poorly worded insofar as the ball will have a combined speed of about 18m/s with a vertical component of 11.2m/s.
When school Physics departments are severely underfunded it is no wonder that pupils' perception is of an outdated subject.
I suppose these questions are a bit on the boring side but so are many details of Law, Accountancy etc. Why do our brightest pupils in Physics rarely go on to study Physics at university? Mainly because they can see better paid careers in Law, Medicine, Accountancy etc. Most of the CEOs in industry are not Scientists or Engineers and decisions are made by bean counters who cannot see the potential in a development. Compare Faraday's revelation to politicians about the generation of electricity, when the reply was "can we tax it?"

  • 173.
  • At 02:26 PM on 12 Dec 2006,
  • brennan wrote:

The poor wording of question 3 is fairly typical of exam papers i'm afraid. An 'incorrect' answer (whichever answer is deemed to be incorrect by whoever set the paper) would not recieve marks or be compensated in any way for not being Psychic. They might get a mark for showing their working, IF it was a correct part of obtaining the correct answer AND there was more than one mark for the question as a whole.

  • 174.
  • At 08:54 PM on 12 Dec 2006,
  • Andy wrote:

I'll go with c,c,a.
Keep the ground out of it. What's the speed of the ball when its centre passes a point in space? Its speed wouldn't change when it bounced anyway, according to the Universe of A-level.
I studied physics A-level. Indeed, I took 3 science A-levels. I don't know why I bothered. As a local politician said recently - 'I only pull teeth out all day.' His argumnet that most people with science training were over-qualified for what they actually did was impecable. I almost belived him... until remembering that, without my physics, I wouldn't enjoy pages like these.

  • 175.
  • At 01:06 AM on 29 Dec 2006,
  • Simon wrote:

I'm 34 and left school with no qualifications at all. I am now a mature student studying archaeology. By profession I'm a builder, so Pythagoras is to me vry familiar. I must confess that these questions are fundamentaly beyond me. But having read a few of the above posts (many telling me how it's all Pythag', at least as far as Q1 is concerned) I decided to have another go. With this in mind, even a rough calculation using Pythag' shows that the answer must be C.

Please people, don't be too hard on todays young students. I admit that I can't solve these problems myself, (my academic talent lies in another direction) but neither could any of you before you were taught to do them. :-)

  • 176.
  • At 10:37 PM on 03 Jan 2007,
  • Philip Holton wrote:

How can anyone possibly claim the standards are slipping? anyone who does so is an ignorant moron. I'm reading physics at Bristol, and got an A at maths and physics. It makes me very angry, to have slogged my guts out to get those A levels to have them rubbished by someone who hasn't sat an exam in forty years and doesn't have the slightest notion that A levels involve more than simple mechanics. This is one of the few instances in life where my only argument to someone is to shout louder than them because what they are saying is utter rubbish and they won't admit it.

  • 177.
  • At 10:25 AM on 07 Jan 2007,
  • Semantics wrote:

I am sure I am not alone in wishing to congratulate Philip (post 176) on achieving A grades in A level maths and physics and subsequently gaining a place at Bristol to study physics. I wish him well in his studies and his future career which, hopefully, will make good use of his education in physics.

Obviously the better pupils of today are the equal of those from previous generations. With the aid of technology in schools and enhanced coursework books and media coverage they might well be better informed, although they may suffer from inferior teachers. However the opinion of many well-informed people, such as university lecturers and education experts, is that the standard of knowledge/ability of the average pupil has deteriorated. Since these pupils have high grades at A level, the conclusion is that standards have fallen. This doesn't undermine Philip's achievement

Today many more pupils take A levels than, say, two generations ago. In my experience typically less than 2% of the population of 16 year olds would study beyond O level. These tended to split evenly between Arts and Science. Many of these would attend university and follow a career path based on their chosen subject. I feel sure that in today's climate many of those would have been seduced by the rewards available in banking, accounting, business administration etc., as appears to be the case today.

We should be thankful that there are dedicated and motivated youngsters like Philip who see the study of physics as worthwhile.

On entering university I went with an economics fresher to collect some past finals papers so that we could see what was expected of us. He was surprised to find the papers for all the years he collected had exactly the same questions each year. On questioning his professor he was told that in economics they don't change the questions each year, they change the answers. (Only joking).

It woud be interesting if Philip could sit A levels from say, 1954. In those days, one's total result at O, A and degree level depended on what one produced during the final exam. There were no modules or coursework to carry forward.

  • 178.
  • At 06:58 PM on 09 Jan 2007,
  • Sen Firman wrote:

It is depressing to read Mr Hussain's assertation (post 13) that pioneers are bred by the education system; I find it difficult to accept that with an average of 98% at A-level Mr Hussain can not see the difference between the well-educated and the gifted, and ask whether he really sees correlation between the number of those possessing outstanding intellectual ability in a generation, and the standard of their educational syllabus. Surely historical pioneers have disproved this? Would he base his own success on the skill of his teachers? It appears from such comments not only that intelligence is a result of nothing but education, but also that aptitude cannot endure without stimulus. Really?

I'm sorry if this passage misinterprets your comments, sir, or if it comes across as argumentative; I'm just trying to justify to myself that this miserable prospect can surely not be true in all cases. With the threats of the twenty-first century, today's young people cannot afford to be flattened intellectually.

I know a lot less about the A and AS level course than most of you, not having started it yet, but find it disturbing to accept that I am subject to decreased ability, not to mention professional status, just because I was born during a period of poor education policy. It shouldn't be students' responsibility to spend the limited time not taken up by the full-time job of education to better teach themselves the subjects on the curriculum. I have experienced a lot of disdain from older generations concerning current school qualifications and practice, although they accept that students are not to blame, yet very few adults act politically to try and change this. Perhaps it should be the responsibility of the student, but, by the time the age or organized and "political" rebellion, say 14 or 15, is reached, it is too late for young people to stop being labelled because of the inferior education they're said to have received. And, then, they themselves are too embittered to speak out in time to save another class of students from this. Will my generation become unemployable in years to come, discriminated against for our "false" qualifications? Will all GCSEs acheived between years X and Y become more or less void?

This may sound ridiculous, but I have no idea. I have the same problem of Mr Holton (post 176): I'm instinctively defensive of my education, because I have worked very hard for it and don't want that undermined by those who themselves insist that their own education was nothing like it. I don't like to think that I've wasted all this time, or that other people who insist on knowing better, have let me and hundreds of others do so.

Please reply to my post, I'd like to know just how much of this is rational and how much is hormonal.

  • 179.
  • At 12:14 PM on 16 Jan 2007,
  • Student wrote:

You do realise they are A/S level physics questions from the first unit out of 3. Easiest possible on the entire course. Theres no physical way they are from the A2 year as the article suggests, infact it is quite misleading. I say this as an A2 physics student.

  • 180.
  • At 11:59 PM on 23 Jan 2007,
  • Disillusioned wrote:

As a research physicist at a fairly prestigious UK university, I am completely disillusioned with the way things are going. Here are some of the problems:

(a) Mathematics. I teach 2nd year undergraduate physicists. Their standard of mathematics is undeniably far worse than the standard that my peers had in a similar situation 12 years ago.
To those who say that the sums in physics should be left until later - definitely not. This is a huge problem for the future of our society.

(b) Not a money subject. Economics, accountancy and computer studies are no more interesting than physics, and to many people are in fact less so. Mathematical economics in many ways is just like physics. So why aren't those topics suffering? They are seen as stable roads to money.

(c) Stigma. Geeks, nerds, no girls. As a student I saw many talented peers give up and do more `trendy' subjects just because of the ignorant stigma attached to physics.

(d) `Genius'. Physics has itself to blame for this one. Everyone thinks that you have to be Einstein, and this is bound to put off many people who aren't arrogant confidence tricksters. The `Genius' concept is also a major problem among research scientists, as to some extent or another it leads to ego problems in almost all scientists.

(e) Bad Teaching. This is partly inevitable, as noone really understands physics, even people with Nobel prizes. Physics is difficult for teachers (at all levels) to understand. When I don't understand something I tell my students. This type of honesty is not commonplace however, and I feel is one of the bigger reasons why physics teachers can be uninspiring. Science is not totally `matter of fact', and should not be taught like that. It took 1000s of years to develop the material now taught at school, and its fair to say that none of us really understand it.

(f) Public banality. Society is always drawn to fools gold. Toys, gadgets, celebrity, glamour. Physics is not about that, and so of course it isn't going to compete with Posh's latest frock or motorola's lates mobile. As the world appears to be becoming increasingly banal, of course interest in physics will drop. Its a symptom of a wider, and deeper, problem.

(g) Lack of respect of the importance of fundamental science. If it wasn't for fundamental physics half of your loved ones would be dead. Cancer research (rightly) tugs on our heart strings in regular adverts. Physics research doesn't. This is because the masses out there don't appreciate that understanding quantum theory was essential in the development of most medical imaging technologies, laser surgery, and even the transistor. The lack of respect for science is what annoys me the most. I don't expect everyone to like or be good at science, but what disappoints me is the lack of respect for scientists. Scientists make this world what it is. The public needs to appreciate this a lot more.

(h) Scientific career structures. These are quite simply a disaster. Academic scientists are faced with several years of short term contracts with no guarantee of a permanent job and not enough pay to make up for the uncertainty. Half of the smartest physicists I know have been driven to quit and go to work in banks because of this. I might follow them myself. Unfortunately as theorems or models of nature cannot be patented, fundamental research does not really receive the funding it warrants when compared to some of society's more frivolous activities.

Maybe my intense tone above seems heavy handed. Why is this guy getting so worked up you might ask? The reason I am getting worked up is because fundamental science really really is that important. It should be as much of a concern as the state of the NHS. A sure-fire way to suffer from a problem is not to see it coming in the first place. Unfortunately I agree with the last line of Dr. X's comment above.

  • 181.
  • At 08:25 AM on 09 Mar 2007,
  • NotSoSmart wrote:

As an AS Physics student, i would ahve to agree with the comments, that these questions are pathetically easy, however as mentioned before, these are the earliers possible question in the mechanics module. If you really want to study mechanics, the AS-A2 M!,M" and M3 modules are much more useful and relevant.

  • 182.
  • At 05:33 PM on 14 Apr 2007,
  • A2physicsgal wrote:

I'm just approaching my A2 exams, having got an A at AS Physics and an A* at GCSE; and I am intending to study Physics at uni starting in October.

My initial thoughts on seeing those questions were that they are from the first term of AS. However, personally I would agree that a lot of AS Physics is fairly easy to get the hang of. However, A2 is much harder so maybe some A2 questions should be put on this site too.

Another point to consider is that in the old A level system you studied 3 subjects. Now it is usual to do more. I go to a state comprehensive and, like some of my friends, took 5 subjects in the first year and 4 in the second (physics, maths, biology, french and psychology in lower 6th). That is 6 hours a day plus homework - not easy.

Lastly, I have no idea how much motivation students had years ago, but now the pressure is on to get the grades and get to uni. I know many of us who are working until 11pm some nights and during revision time falling asleep surrounded with books. If exams are getting easier, we must be getting more stupid...

  • 183.
  • At 07:20 PM on 14 Mar 2008,
  • Brooke wrote:

Hi, I'm Brooke and I'm in grade 10 where I have just woke up to what physics really is. I find it a challenge but at the same time interesting. I just wanted to say that there are still a lot of young students fasinated with physics and we need encouragment from everyone to do our best and question anything and everthing. Prove that your theory right and make it a fact, maybe even a new law.

Thanx for this site I liked to know other people's opinions and thoughts

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