One of the finest physicists of a generation, Freeman Dyson, said his interest in science emerged from a reaction to Latin grammar and football. His prep school, a 1930s version of Dotheboys Hall, taught no science. Latin grammar was taught by a hated headmaster, and many boys found leisure-time refuge in football. But what about boys lacking football prowess?
'We found our refuge in science. We held our meetings quietly and inconspicuously. All we could do was share books and explain to each other what we didn't understand. But we learned a lot.'
They learned, he says, that science is a rebellion. Scientists are like artists and poets, free spirits resisting the restrictions imposed by the cultures they live in. They challenge existing beliefs, they question everything.
His message is that we must take care with science curricula. Give teachers the freedom to open up questions, give pupils the freedom to explore. But as he wrote in 1990: 'Now the kids are kept chained to their desks and are pumped full of pre-digested science, just as they are in America.'
And that, he says, has had consequences. Britain once produced a glittering array of great scientists: he lists Darwin, Faraday, Maxwell, Joule, Kelvin, Dirac, Crick. But amongst many able scientists today, he says, 'I see only one, Stephen Hawking, that I would put in the same class with Maxwell and Dirac. Somehow or other, the shift in the schools from Latin and Greek to physics and chemistry has been successful in keeping the most original minds away from science.'
A curriculum shaped around teaching facts for exams left no time for questioning. Science has too often been taught like Latin grammar – as a fixed body of facts, rather than exploring the unknown. So those students who are explorers, keen to challenge and question and probe deeper, the future Maxwells and Diracs – they can too easily get bored and switch to another subject.
The natural course of science is to develop like a detective story. The scene is set, and the characters introduced. The tension builds; a body is found. The detective arrives to gather small scraps of clues and probe their meaning. The trail twists and turns; it leads to someone; an arrest is made. But one piece of evidence doesn't fit. The evidence is re-examined, and each assumption challenged – and then comes the moment of breakthrough: a new alternative structure completely fits the evidence.
This was how Johannes Kepler showed that the planets move in ellipses around the sun. He was born in a world that for 2,000 years had believed in a fundamental division between heaven and earth. Down here we are flawed and trapped in time; up there is perfection and eternity. So therefore, the logic ran, heavenly motions must be in circles, because a circle is somehow perfect.
The planets' squiggly sky-movements were rather ingeniously fitted into circles, by making the centres of these circles describe circles of their own. Copernicus thought this a convoluted way for a god to make a universe and proposed a cleaner-cut solution – still with circles, but with the Earth joining the ranks of planets, and the whole family turning around the sun.
The man who could decide it lived in Prague. Tycho Brahe had built up at his observatory in Denmark a magnificent body of naked-eye observations. He had his own views about interpreting the data. Yes, he said, the planets go round the sun – but the sun and its flock still circle the Earth.
To Tycho in Prague went the young Johannes Kepler, with poor eyesight and crippled hands from childhood smallpox, but with a formidable mathematical ability and a great love of astronomy. Tycho put him to work on the data for Mars, and falling ill, asked him to complete his life's work in tabulating the motions of all the planets. He had one further request, in their final conversation – that Kepler should present the data on the planets in terms of Tycho's own Earth-centred model.
The young mathematician made no fewer than 70 different attempts to do this. He eventually got very close indeed – to within just eight minutes of arc. Now with 360 degrees in a circle, and 60 minutes in each degree, eight minutes of arc is very little – just twice the minimum separation of stars that our eyes can see apart.
So this might do it. Was eight minutes of arc close enough?
No, he declared, it was not! 'Since the divine goodness has given to us in Tycho Brahe a most careful observer, from whose observations the error of eight minutes is shown in this calculation...it is right that we should with gratitude recognise and make use of this gift of God.'
So back he went to the data and challenged and questioned everything – until he faced the deepest assumption of all – circles in the heavens. He tried an egg-shaped oval curve – and an ellipse – and came storming through. An elliptical orbit of Mars around the sun was a perfect fit, and he found he could also get its speed of motion and even its distance from the sun.
He thereby opened the way for Newton to work out an underlying force of gravitation producing elliptical orbits, and he broke through a mindset that was so entrenched that even Galileo could never bring himself to comment on any of Kepler's works.
This was the triumph and the glory, how Kepler tackled a cosmic detective mystery. But the standard science curriculum has become too constrained for time to tell the story of Kepler's challenges, let alone try out some of his data. There is just time to list his three laws of planetary motion, work through some numerical examples, and push rapidly on to Newton's laws of gravity.
It's like editing down a two-hour story of 'Inspector Morse' to a 10-second naming of the guilty person.
'I don’t really care how you work out how fast a ball falls if it weighs 10kg and is falling four metres,' was one comment in a student review of the curriculum 15 years ago. 'It's not stimulating and I'm never going to use that information again.'
So we need to find a way to bring back the fire in the equations, to reignite the passion and the determination to sail against the wind and tide. Into this situation came the Institute of Physics, pointing out that the general public is keenly interested in the frontiers of science, in the universe's origins and quantum theory's mysteries – but that these topics have been traditionally restricted to university physics courses, leaving the school syllabus locked into the physics of several hundred years ago.
To change the school physics curriculum so radically seemed an impossible task. But the institute continued to press the case – and now it's succeeded. The Scottish Curriculum for Excellence includes relativity and quantum theory.
But how, we might ask, can physics teachers cope? Teaching relativity has always been difficult, and quantum theory has confusion built in by its founding fathers, with conflicting interpretations still unresolved. If the experts at the frontiers of physics cannot agree, what hope is there for teachers and pupils?
The outcome is fascinating. With no standard fixed interpretation to be taught as dogma, teachers and pupils are free to assess for themselves the various alternatives. And there are signs that they are responding to it.
'Just had a great discussion with the Higher pupils about gravitons, Higgs boson, etc', wrote one teacher recently on the physics teachers' online forum Sputnik. 'They are totally shocked that there are things we (physicists) do not know (can observe) or even understand!'
This kind of response from pupils would have been unheard of not so long ago. It's the sign of a climate in which a fine new generation of physicists can grow up. It's the way they can develop the skills and determination to question existing pictures of the world, and like Kepler go on to create their own alternatives. It's happening in the midst of the huge burdens that come with any change of curriculum, and the workload on the teachers can only be imagined. But, if they succeed, they may give science education the breakthrough that Freeman Dyson has spent a lifetime hoping to see.
This article was first published in SR in 2017