Margareta Pagano: Stargazer Cox may be the black swan to change life closer to home
The professor, whose TV show transformed our relationship with space in three days, is the inspiration that industry needs to drive more students into science
Margareta Pagano is a former business editor of the Independent on Sunday who now writes columns and business interviews for a range of publications, including the Independent, Independent on Sunday and London Evening Standard.
Sunday 22 January 2012
Every now and then someone or something comes along to turn everything on its head and challenges the way we think; the economist, Nassim Taleb, calls it the black swan phenomenon. It looks as though Professor Brian Cox, the physicist and former keyboard player, could be one such black swan who with a couple of graceful swoops is changing the way an entire generation looks at the universe.
With his soft Lancastrian burr and gentle manner, the enthusiasm of this physicist is responsible for a quantum leap in the public's interest in the wonders of science; and that in itself appears to be having profound consequences on how the young are looking at the potential of maths, physics and engineering to explain the world around them.
Professor Cox's latest show, Stargazing Live, the three-day space-fest on the BBC last week, attracted 3.8 million viewers and more than 100,000 of them had contacted the programme to report on what they had seen in the sky. Within hours of the show going out, Amazon reported a 491 per cent increase in telescope sales. This is great for the makers of telescopes – and the jobs it creates, but it's even better for society. While most of those buying telescopes are probably the older generation, they will undoubtedly impart that knowledge to those around them, their children and friends. Enthusiasm is always infectious.
For years now politicians, policy makers and industrialists have been lamenting the decline in students studying engineering – the proportion of students studying are lower than in Trinidad – and have been struggling to find new ways of encouraging them to take such subjects more seriously. Yet in the few years that Professor Cox has been on our screens he's made the impossible come true and made science sexy again; as well as encouraging a more humanist cultural approach rather than the narrow specialisation of the past few decades.
Cox is not the only one – David Attenborough's extraordinary Frozen Planet series has also proved thrilling to younger audiences and shows the power of awe-inspiring, factual television. There are other factors at play – the big push by government and schools to encourage pupils studying science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects is having an impact. Over the past five years the numbers studying maths has risen by 40 per cent and those taking physics and chemistry by 19 per cent. This shift is reinforced by the subjects chosen by students applying to study at university and college this year as shown by the latest applications to Ucas.
Bill Rammell, the deputy vice-chancellor of Plymouth University, tells me there has been a marked increase in applications for science-based subjects; demand for marine engineering is up 58 per cent while engineering is 38 per cent higher year on year. Ironically, there's no question that higher tuition fees are responsible too, as students look for courses which provide them with jobs when they graduate; that's the market working for you.
What needs asking now is how we can learn from the Cox effect, and whether there are clues from his success that can be applied by parents and schools, and most provocatively, by the appalling careers service which most schools provide.
Three things come to mind immediately – Professor Cox famously got a D in his mathematics A-level and played in band before going on to specialise in particle physics – and says he was inspired by the quantum physicist Richard Feynman and cosmologist Carl Sagan. So, hard work really can beat exam results, it's never too late to study and inspirational role models can be very effective.
This brings us to last week's unemployment figures, once again horrendous with rising numbers among the young unemployed and a big jump in the over-fifties, equally cruel. Yet there are thousands and thousands of jobs available, many in engineering and manufacturing, specifically in the automotive industries – from unskilled to skilled – as well as in IT and financial services.
But there is a mismatch between supply and demand, partly because there is always a time lag as it takes time for some industries to gear up and time for the young to appreciate which are the growth industries for the future. It's this mismatch which needs changing; for part of the problem is that young teenagers have not been told about or exposed to those industries and this is mainly because the teachers don't know either.
Government can help, by encouraging schools to create stronger links with industry and vice versa. If David Cameron doesn't want to leave the same legacy as Lady Thatcher's government in creating unemployment, then more must be done to avoid youth joblessness. Cameron must have hated being taunted by Ed Miliband last week in parliament over the latest rise, particularly coming while he's on his latest crusade about moral markets – he should take note that markets can't be moral but people's behaviour can.
Cutting the cost of employment and making it easier to jobshare – National Insurance should be borne by the employee perhaps – should be top of the Government's list of priorities. At Plymouth, Rammell and his colleagues have stepped up their drive to bring in industrialists to talk to students, who are encouraged to work while studying. They have also extended the scheme to help graduates to find work to three years and they have students walking the walk on campus – budding architects are invited to help design some of the university's projects, and engineering students are helping with a new marine building. What sense this makes, and how exciting; just the sort of work which should be filtering down into our schools which is where most change is needed.
All we need now is to clone Professor Cox; or maybe we can. His next series is Wonders of Life, so no doubt he'll tell us.
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