Putting the oomph into physics
STUDENTS have been going for engineering, the life sciences and mathematics, and bypassing physics.
But physicists are needed in industries here, said Senior Minister of State for Education Lui Tuck Yew yesterday.
Singapore's having top-notch physicists was a key factor behind the world's biggest solar company - Renewable Energy Corporation of Norway - investing $6.3 million in a solar plant here, he said.
The concern, though, is over the future supply of physicists here.
Rear-Admiral (NS) Lui was speaking at the opening of the High-Energy Physics Conference, organised to interest 58 junior college and secondary school students in the subject. Teachers and university lecturers are also attending it.
Declared open at the Nanyang Technological University (NTU) yesterday, the three-day event will feature presentations by 29 eminent physicists, including Nobel laureate professors Martin Perl and Gerard't Hooft.
Top students of physics from the schools will also take part in a workshop.
The numbers tell the story of the flagging interest in physics: The number of undergraduates reading the subject at the National University of Singapore has been stagnant at around 60 in the last seven years; at NTU, 70 are studying it this year, up from 27 in 2005, when the physics programme began there.
Of the nearly 10,500 graduates in 2006, over half - 55 per cent - had gone for engineering, the life sciences, mathematics and information technology.
Associate Professor Quek Leong Chuan, who chairs the Institute of Physics, called for more to be done to promote the subject in schools.
The institute will conduct more talks and seminars for students and raise the profile of physicists working in various industries, he said.
Professor Alfred Huan, who heads NTU's School of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, added that having quality teachers was key to inspiring students' interest in the subject.
Former Raffles Junior College student Krithin Sitaran, 20, who has completed national service, will be reading physics at Princeton University.
He said: 'Rather than apply a ready-made solution to a problem, physics teaches me to think outside the box to find solutions.'
This was a point RADM Lui made earlier. He said that even if physics students decided to leave the field, their training makes for a strong foundation in managerial and leadership positions.
Lui Teck Yew claims that we need physicists for industries in Singapore and cites the example of Renewable Energy Corporation (REC) moving to Singapore because of, in his own words, Singapore's 'having of top-notch physicists'. This is of course utter rubbish. on two counts.
1. Singapore does not have any real top-notch physicists if you discount part-time faculty poached from other universities like Sir Anthony Leggett who doesn't work full-time or do any research in Singapore. I can only think of at most one real Singaporean top-notch physicist but I doubt his field of research was what motivated REC to invest in Singapore.
2. The supply of trained physicists in Singapore is probably not a significant factor in REC's decision to locate its manufacturing facility in Singapore. Don't take my word for it. Check out its job adverts for vacancies in Singapore. If you search for 'Physics' jobs, there are no vacancies. Zilch, nada, zip. If you search for engineering-related jobs in the same website, all of the positions are microelectronics-related and can be filled by any person who has some familiarity with silicon technology. That person can be trained in chemistry, materials science, chemical engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering or physics. There is no specific requirement for graduates holding physics degrees. Those engineering positions in REC Singapore require the same technical background as any other engineering position in a wafer fabrication facility in Singapore.
Conclusion: Senor Minister of State for Education Lui Teck Yew is talking nonsense. Either that or he's been fed misleading information by his subordinates.