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)

Voice of Reason

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.


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.

Bodon Regier

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.


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.

Bodon Regier

> 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.


John Pula

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.

Mike B

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


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-.


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

Joe J

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


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 :)


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


I can see how The Big Bang Theory might produce more hack television writers. Are physicists so easily impressed?


The original Iron Chef series had the same effect on cookery enrollments in Japan.

Russell Harris

... and reportedly there was a rise in forensic science enrollments due to the CSI effect.

Not sure that MacGyver ever inspired anyone though.

Carter Mayfield

Nice post, but some graphs might tell the story better than a set of tables...


Freakonomics certainly had an influence on me - a recently declared economics major.


Does choosing econ as a major before the release of Freakonomics make me any cooler?


I got my Econ degrees in the early 90s. Somehow, I got a sense of satisfaction out of being countercyclical when I read this post!