Physics and Medicine

I’m consistently impressed by the IOP. Whether it’s running evening lectures, arranging carers events or rolling out just the most comprehensive gender balance at schools’ study in the country, it’s somewhere I really appreciate. I’ve just spoken to a head of science who sings the praises of the teacher training days that so excited me last weekend. She’s the STEM coordinator at Westminster Academy, often referred to as an ‘enthusiast’ school by London universities- the kids get everywhere.

Peter Main was the head of education at the IOP for a very long time. He’s the first (and last) word on the teaching of physics at schools. A few weeks ago I saw Peter do a talk, where he said the number of girls studying physics A-level would increase dramatically if they made it a pre-requisite for medicine. He’s not the kind of guy to make throw-away comments, and this isn’t one- he’s worked with prestigious medical journal, ‘The Lancet’, to create a special issue assessing the role of physics in medicine.

In the School Science Review in 2012, Peter Main wrote a paper detailing the “design criteria for a physics curriculum”. It’s a really brilliant article[1].


Of the students who study A-level physics, the majority (95 %) end up going to university, where almost all study STEM related courses. In 2012, 85 % of them also studied maths. For boys, the top three subjects are mechanical engineering, physics and maths. For girls it’s maths, physics and medicine. That’s an interesting observation- for girls, medicine is the 3rd most important subject, whereas for boys it’s the 10th. Peter’s not happy with school assessments… “so many students see physics as a mess of disparate elements and miss completely its real beauty”, and he misses the wonderful Nuffield Physics. Him and Charles Tracy coined the IOP’s Big Ideas about physics, alongside some guidelines in how to think like a physicist.

The Lancet’s Physics and Medicine series is fascinating. Medicine uses “imaging techniques that use the entire breadth of the electromagnetic spectrum, from x-rays to terahertz radiation, as well as ultrasound, are increasingly used not only for diagnosis but for medical screening and as an integral part of treatment planning”.[2] Up until the 1980s “basic physics was a compulsory element in undergraduate medical education in the UK”, which is when numbers started to fall. Even then there was support of physics A-Level being mandatory for the study of medicine.[3] Because of the new linear A-Level system, schools are forcing 16-year olds to choose three subjects- and stick to them. Prospective medics are now (according to teachers) more likely to opt for Maths, Chemistry and Biology than taking on Physics, which isn’t good news for girls in physics. The majority of medics with A-Level physics are girls, and the majority of medics will no longer study physics. When one of the Teaching & Learning Coaches at the IOP day asked his class their favourite topics in science, the girls chose medical imaging and diagnostics, whereas the boys chose a-bombs and radioactive decay. If physics were more aligned with medicine, would there be more girls

Tracy & Main’s Ideas and Concepts were laid out in the Science Community Representing Education (SCORE) Guidelines:

Big Ideas

  • Reductionism
  • Universality
  • Unification
  • Synoptic Nature
  • Cause and Effect
  • Mathematical Techniques
  • Conservation
  • Equilibrium
  • Differences cause change
  • Inertia
  • Dissipation
  • Irreversibility
  • Fields
  • Energy

Thinking like a physicist:

  • Critical thinking and scepticism
  • Deep Understanding
  • Seeking Consistency
  • Reason and Logic
  • Quantitative Understanding
  • Models
  • Simplification
  • Approximation and other techniques
  • Isolating
  • Using experiments to test ideas
  • Excising prejudice



[1] Curriculum Constructs/ASE Physics.pdf

[2] Volume 379, No. 9825, p1463–1464, 21 April 2012


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