Is A level science really science?

EksamenToday I was proofreading a fold out card of handy formulas for A level physics students. Ohm’s law, Newton’s law of gravity etc. Useful formula but carefully checking dozens of them was very tedious. I also read the Nobel Laureate Prof Sir Harry Kroto’s latest polemic. Basically, he says that science is not a set of formulas, it is a method of determining the truth.

In essence he says science is not Ohm’s law, it is the method that led to its discovery. I.e., take something which conducts electricity, apply 1 V across it, then 2 V, then 3 V, 4V, etc. For each voltage measure the current, then plot current as a function of voltage and directly determine that the the current is proportional to the voltage.

In his definition, with which I agree, science is not formulas but a way of working them out. Formulas are useful but not as useful as a way of working them out.

But exams can often end by testing more knowledge of formulas and less science in the above sense. We give our students books of formulas and physical constants in exams, to reduce the need for rote memorisation, and I try to set questions that get students to work things out. But still remembering formulas helps in the exam, and I worry this may be even more useful in A level exams. But to become a scientist, you have to learn to work things out.