A mission to Mars is taking off this summer, and British astrophysicists will be involved. The control centre for part of the European Space Agency mission, the life-seeking Beagle 2 probe, will be based at the National Space Science Centre in Leicester. Astrophysicists from the Open and Leicester universities will help to communicate with the probe, and to beam images of its progress into the space centre for the public to see.
Beagle 2 is good news for British physics. The discipline, along with maths, is suffering from an image problem. The closure of several university physics departments in recent years has led to a perception that the subject is in crisis. Teaching physics is expensive. It demands hi-tech equipment and a high ratio of staff to students. If admissions at a university fall, the subject may be unable to justify itself to the accountants.
However, Philip Diamond of the Institute of Physics insists that the picture is brighter than the closures suggest. "The small pool of people able to apply for physics courses – those with A-levels in physics and maths – explains why the subject has been unable to participate in the mass higher education movement, and the number of graduates has remained steady – between 2,500 and 3,000 – for the last few years," he says. The biggest departments (including Imperial, Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Birmingham and Manchester) have got bigger at the expense of smaller ones, he adds. "Half a dozen departments produce 50 per cent of the graduates. Their little brothers find it hard to compete."
Physics at the University of Central Lancashire is one of the little brothers. It has started to offer a range of physics-related courses to pull in the funding-per-student it needs to stay afloat. "We offer BScs in space sciences. There are physics components – for example the study of space flight – but we also look at areas such as the biological aspects of putting people into space," says the department's Professor Mike Holmes. Unlike traditional physics courses, Central Lancashire's broader degrees and others like them do not require maths and physics A-levels.
Such innovations may not be highly regarded by some of the more prestigious departments, which have no shortage of applicants. "It's not as if we need to cook up these degrees to drag students in," says Imperial's Professor Tony Bell.
But what the smaller departments lack in reputation, they can compensate for by offering a more personal service. "We take one or two students a year who have left one of the more prestigious places," says Professor Holmes at Central Lancashire. "We know all our students by their first name and offer them lots of support."
Applications for physics degrees have actually gone up in the last couple of years. This may be due partly to improved marketing of the subject. Professor Jim Hough of Hertfordshire University thinks that physics departments' increasing focus on astrophysics has helped to build interest in the subject. "Instead of dealing with cars on roads, it's planets, stars, galaxies – which obey the same physical laws but are more exciting to study," he says. Courses in or including astrophysics can offer placements at observatories in places such as Australia and the Canary Islands.
The Institute of Physics is doing its best to promote the subject, including running a campaign to demonstrate to policy makers and the public the importance of physics. Part of this is a series of papers delivered by top physicists on the more thrilling aspects of the subject, such as high intensity lasers and quantum information. One of the papers explained that physics PhDs known as "rocket scientists" are increasingly in demand in the square mile for their financial modelling skills.
At Leicester university a new mode of teaching is being piloted. From September some students will gain their degrees via problem-solving in groups of four. "The aim is to instill a deeper understanding of core principals," says admissions tutor Dr Richard Willingale. Many physics graduates want to take the subject further. There are research groups working at the cutting edge of science. Forty per cent of Leicester's graduates go on to the further study. Right now there's the chance to be involved in that exciting voyage to the red planet.