Is The Big Bang Theory Producing More Physics Majors?

That’s the (tenuous) claim of this Guardian article:

According to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), there was a 10% increase in the number of students accepted to read physics by the university admissons services between 2008-09, when The Big Bang Theory was first broadcast in the UK, and 2010-11. Numbers currently stand at 3,672. Applications for physics courses at university are also up more than 17% on last year. Philip Walker, an HEFCE spokesman, said the recent spate of popular televisions services had been influential but was hard to quantify.

Hard to quantify, indeed.

FWIW, we’ve been told by a lot of youngish readers that Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics led them to major in economics. John J. Siegfried addressed this possibility in a Journal of Economic Education paper called “Trends in Undergraduate Economics Degrees, 1991-2010″: 

As I reported last year (Siegfried 2010), the first year that might have revealed a “Freakonomics effect,” namely, acceleration in undergraduate economics degrees* powered by some of the millions of people who read Levitt and Dubner’s best-selling book, was 2008.  Freakonomics was first published in 2005.  Most undergraduates who earned a bachelor’s degree in 2007-08 declared their major in the spring of 2006, so many of them (or their parents) would have had an opportunity to read Freakonomics by then. The 2009 and 2010 numbers continue to support this hypothesis.  During the three years after the publication of Freakonomics, that could have had an impact, economics degrees rose 16 percent.  Over the same period, total undergraduate degrees awarded increased by only eight percent.  Any effects on economics degrees that may have been stimulated by the financial crisis will not be apparent until data for 2011 are available.

There are of course, many (many many many!) other factors to consider, as there are with the Big Bang/physics theory. For all we know, the rise in economics degrees is completely orthogonal to Freakonomics and in fact our books may have alerted some students (and their parents) to the discipline’s depravity and kept in check what otherwise might have been an even greater surge in economics students!

* (Here is a look at the long-term trend in economics majors; note the rise of late but, just as interesting, the steep decline in the early 1990’s.)

(HT: Babak Seradjeh)

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  1. Voice of Reason says:

    That’s great to actually have a TV show positively impact academics and in turn society. For too many years, we had law shows encourage people to be lawyers, and reality shows encourage people to be unemployed and stupid. I won’t complain if a TV show makes a kid want to grow up to be a scientist, teacher, inventor, or engineer. Technology is going to eliminate most of the manual, physical jobs in the future, we need a generation full of tech-savvy people to run the machines, and advance us further.

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    • Shane says:

      I have wondered also about the influence of TV shows like Pop Idol or X Factor. On the one hand they glamourise the world of pop stardom and make it seem accessible to ordinary people. Perhaps this increases the number of young people striving to make it as pop stars, diverting energy and resources towards music and dance.

      Yet these shows also show something that is normally missing in the treatment of pop stardom: failure. They show entertainingly deluded entrants who are rejected and humiliated in the early rounds of the competition. Perhaps this has a demotivating effect by showing people that failure to win such a highly-desired career is a strong possibility. It might be interesting to explore this.

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  2. Bodon Regier says:

    I would be curious to see how many of these new physics undergrads who have been turned on to physics by the the BBT actually wind up getting a degree and going on to do great work in the field; I would predict a lot of attrition once these new enthusiasts see how tough high-level physics actually is. I think the Freakonomics phenomenon for economics students is a bit of a different beast, as you could easily get a PhD in (some fields) of economics with an IQ of 120, but this would be very difficult in physics. In other words, I think there is a limited and largely fixed number of people with the brainpower to really do physics, and that the BBT effect, while cute and passingly inspiring, won’t actually have much of an effect on the field of physics.

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    • Jason says:

      Seriously? Are you channeling Sheldon when claiming that there are only a few elite brains capable of doing physics at a Ph.D. level??

      Even if we accept your premise, please do the math regarding the presence of 7 billion humans, the percentage of these with IQs over 120 (or 150 or whatever), and the number of them who actually have access to the path to an advanced degree. Think of it as the Drake equation for scientists. There are almost certainly thousands of individuals with the potential to succeed in advanced fields if their path is illuminated for them. I can only imagine how many of these individuals are pushed aside every time someone announces how hard it is to succeed as a scientist.

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      • Bodon Regier says:

        > Are you channeling Sheldon
        Haha, not really.

        > are almost certainly thousands of individuals with the potential to succeed in advanced fields
        I agree. In a population with an average IQ of 100, the likelihood of having an IQ of 140+ is about 1 in 300; i.e. not that rare. I’m just saying that more people being interested in physics will not generate more people with this level of IQ.

        > every time someone announces how hard it is to succeed as a scientist.
        I wasn’t talking about how hard it is to succeed as a “scientist” in general, but specifically as a physicist, and for that the entry-level IQ is about 140. A gung-ho undergrad with an IQ of 125 might be all excited by the BBT and physics, and while that enthusiasm goes a long way (call it conscientiousness, grit, whatever), it won’t magically enable him/her to understand concepts that demand a 140+ IQ to understand. Unless, of course, you’re arguing that an IQ of 140+ is not in fact a minimal requirement for high-level physics, and can be compensated for by effort, which I don’t believe to be the case.

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    • bokonist says:

      I kind of agree with you Bodon (though I don’t want to!), but am not sure whether 140 IQ level is an established in any sense or just a guess ?

      I’ve read in some place (can’t recall the exact source, but i think it was Flynn’s work or some of Malcolm Gladwell’s hokery pokery in Outlier’s) that 120 IQ is good enough to get a phd in physics (but that won’t get you a lot success in the field), but below 120 I think is more established… a psychologist once told me that only 2% of the world population has an IQ around 120 and it gets lower as we increae the IQ scale, so I am guessing most of humanity seems to be doomed to never being able to appreciate science the way scientists do..

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      • bokonist says:

        I meant do science, the way scientists do…which implies become scientists. the reason for this clarification is that i think one can appreciate things without being able to do them.

        …but everyone can become a bokonist if they want to (trust me its much better than christianity or any other religion for that matter), if that is a consolation!!

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    • Jason says:

      Check our Robert Tai’s “Planning Early for Careers in Science” ( for evidence that early interest is a better indicator of future success in science than is early demonstration of aptitude. Doesn’t address the skills needed to perform at the highest levels, but it shows that sparks are as necessary as kindling.

      One other note – when I taught sixth grade, I had one student’s measured IQ go up 30 points in a year. Amazing what happens when you break through barriers keeping a kid from “thinking”.

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  3. John Pula says:

    It would be interesting to see the table you linked to adjusted for overall college attendance growth/change, not to mention comparing against historical events. I wonder if the current crisis has people flocking to economics degrees to help fix(or understand!) it. Or perhaps the crisis might scare people away from money/business type degrees. Looks like they’re on the rise for 08-09.

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  4. Mike B says:

    I can never catch that show because it conflicts with Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes episodes on PBS.

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    • carlosmx37 says:

      two years ago I had teh same problem,.I had to decide between the last chapter of CSI, and some old episodes of “three and a half”,.and didnt want to pay rent for using an adittional service from my cable provider.
      I did undust the old and trusty VCR,and learned to program the hour!,..erased some stupid soccer games,and in a very “sheldonesque” attitude, I do presume using old technology mixed with the new one! -an VCR,and cable tv-.

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  5. pramod says:

    I’m neither a physics nor an economics major, but both Big Bang Theory and Freakonomics encourage me to learn more about these two subjects

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    • Steve S. says:

      Because all of these comments are being posted on the “Freakonomics Blog”, don’t you all think this will be excessively agreed upon? :)

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  6. Joe J says:

    Well growing up watching Star Trek as a kid definately influenced me into going into science. Frankly it did for many of my classmates.

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  7. Shane says:

    Freakonomics, along with other interesting stuff like Nassim Taleb’s “The Black Swan” and Dan Gardner’s “Risk”, also had a role in influencing me. I’m now studying applied social research, have an exam in statistics on Friday – wish me luck :)

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  8. Pearl says:

    I freely admit that I’m studying economics because of Freakonomics :)

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