Cox and Corpses

TIM SQUIRRELL gets emotional about Brian Cox and has something to say about science on the box.

brian cox celebrity academics csi medicine physics Tim S

I want to hate Brian Cox. With his floppy hair, easy smile and unnecessarily advanced grasp of quantum mechanics, he’s everything that I’m not, and for that I want to despise him. But I just can’t help but like him. He’s an incredibly good teacher who has managed to engage a generation of young people with science and boosted applications for physics at the University of Manchester to an all-time high, to the point that it is now the single most over-subscribed physics course in the country. He’s won a spate of awards for his contributions to science communication and he’s stolen the hearts of thousands of teenage girls with his beautiful, beautiful face and his charmingly unassuming nature.

All this said, is he really good for young people? Is he doing a public service by encouraging more of us to go into physics, or is he as much of a homewrecker in terms of careers as he no doubt is in romance?

Without a doubt, the conception of physics presented by Brian Cox is almost as dramatised as that of any TV show. Leaving aside the fact that what he says is largely accurate, whereas the kind of science featured in shows like Casualty, CSI and House is probably on the stunned-animal side of kosher, the effect on young people is fundamentally the same. They give young people unrealistic expectations of science, leaving them with the impression that medicine is all incredible leaps of logic and intuition and physics is all exploding stars and black holes and missing out the reality of the endless drudgery of wards rounds and the seemingly interminable equation solving. Whilst the obvious counter to this is that they’re quite clearly not going to think that these subjects are all excitement without a hint of monotony, the fact is that these programmes do drum up the interest of young people in the subject areas they portray. There was a massive increase in applications for forensic science courses when there was a surge of shows involving it a few years back, and the people applying for these courses can hardly be said to have been given a realistic impression of what their day-to-day life is going to be like.

There is one big difference between the people applying to study physics after having seen Brian Cox’s soft skin and smiling face and those who are applying to do forensic science or medicine after watching Hugh Laurie shout at people or a guy in sunglasses pronounce that it is quite likely that it is indeed murder. The physicists will have studied maths and physics up until the age of eighteen. They know the drill. By and large, physics is physics. What you do at university is not necessarily much different from what you’ve been doing up until that point, except it’s a bit less wrong. This is not so for medicine, where the single mandatory subject for entrance, chemistry, has absolutely zero relevance to nearly anything you will do for most of your course or your career. The medical course is completely different to anything you will have done before, and your opinion on whether you’re going to enjoy it is largely speculative. It’s only the drive to be a doctor that sees most medical students through, and even that can turn out to be woefully misguided.

Young people wanting to study medicine in particular devote a large chunk of their life to it. If you’re applying for medicine, you better bloody well have started doing work experience by the age of 15, or else your chances of getting in start to plummet dramatically, because you haven’t shown adequate commitment to your chosen career path. This is scary – we’re telling people that if they want to commit their lives to medicine, they need to have decided by the age of fifteen. While there’s an argument to be made that work experience helps them to figure out whether medicine is for them: the glorified view of being a doctor presented to them by Holby City is a far cry from the wiping of old people’s bottoms that work experience largely consists of for most people. It’s very easy to convince yourself, having seen the shows, that medicine is for you and then upon reaching university realise that you’re sadly mistaken and have wasted the past three years of your life. I know, because I did it – and yes, I am bitter.

Of course, this is all so many wasted words, because there’s really nothing that can be changed. We can hardly censor all unrealistic portrayals of any specialised field, because nobody wants to watch a show about a forensic scientist who spends most of her time cataloguing various forms of bodily fluid and waiting for the PCR to finish. There is a problem with young people having unrealistic expectations of their future lives in vocational careers; however, there is very little that can be done to fix this. To Mr Cox, I would say this: first, what you are doing is admirable, and whilst it would generally be dangerous to be encouraging large swathes of students to study physics with glorified depictions of the universe’s splendour, the fact that they’re still sat in a classroom chipping away at vast quantities of algebra keeps them grounded – so fantastic, carry on. Second, now that it’s legal, will you marry me?