Inspiring the next generation of physicists

Professor Vukusic's 2007 Institute of Physics lecture (approx 65 minutes).

Professor Pete Vukusic of the University of Exeter has led a successful public engagement campaign based around 15 years of natural photonics research, carried out in response to declining levels of interest in physics.

Physics-based businesses contribute 8.5 per cent of the UK’s economic output and employ more than one million people, according to the Institute of Physics (IOP). However in recent years the supply of highly skilled physics graduates to support innovation in the sector has come under pressure with declining popularity of physics among A level students.

Professor Vukusic’s work has played a central role in the Institute of Physics’ efforts to promote the value of physics in the UK and overseas. He began investigating natural structural colour in the University of Exeter School of Physics in 1998. Iridescence and the photonic properties of butterflies and moths was central to the original work but his research has diversified to comprise the photonics of a much broader range of animals and plants. Thus his research was a natural fit for a public engagement campaign.

In 2007, Professor Vukusic was selected by the IOP to give its funded series of schools lectures and subsequently delivered Light Fantastic: The Science of Colour, based entirely on his research activity, to 14 to16 year olds at 55 venues across the UK. The lectures set out to elucidate the science behind light and colour to stimulate students’ curiosity beyond the classroom, and were designed to complement the National Curriculum and its Scottish and Irish equivalents. Demonstrating the success of the lectures, Vukusic was awarded the British Association of Science Lord Kelvin Prize for science lecturing in 2008.


The IOP filmed Professor Vukusic’s original lecture and distributed 5,000 free DVDs to IOP-member schools. In January 2012, it was uploaded to YouTube and has been viewed over 35,000 times so far. The video was uploaded as a teaching resource on the TES UK and India websites in 2012 and 2013, where it is freely available for 2.5 million registered online users in 274 countries.

In 2011, Vukusic, again funded by the IOP, took the lecture series to Ireland in response to declining numbers of Irish schoolchildren taking physics at Leaving Certificate Level. The lectures tied in with the school curriculum, and reached more than 4,500 students and 50 teachers.

Contributing to the IOP’s international programme, which seeks to advance physics in the developing world for the economic and social benefit, Professor Vukusic took his lecture series to Africa in May 2012. Vukusic took the lecture tour to five schools in the poorest parts of the Ethiopian capital Addis-Adaba, as well as rural schools in Malawi and Tanzania, reaching 2,600 students and 70 teachers. This trip was part-funded by Ripple Africa, a charity that works to improve quality of education. The charity’s programme lead said Professor Vukusic was “an inspiration” to the students.

Vukusic’s lectures have also engaged adult audiences. He exhibited his photonics research at the Royal Society Summer Exhibition in 2011 and, since 2008, has given talks at five major science festivals, including a Royal Society event in Tokyo in 2008 and the Dublin Science Festival in 2009. He has given talks to 37 clubs and societies and media appearances since 2008 include BBC Radio 2 Drivetime with Chris Evans, Material World on BBC Radio 4 and National Geographic News.

In recent years, the uptake of physics at A level has experienced a resurgence, with the number of A level entries increasing from 27,368 in 2006 to 32,660 in 2011. Figures from UCAS revealed an approximately 2,000 increase in students applying for physics courses at UK universities between 2011 and 2012. This 8.3 per cent rise is at odds with an overall 8.7 per cent decline in university applicants across the UK. While it is impossible to measure the individual contribution of Professor Vukusic’s public engagement campaigns to this popularity upswing, his outreach activities have formed a significant part of the UK physics community’s wider successful efforts to capture the public imagination.

In July 2013, Vukusic was awarded the distinguished Royal Society Kohn Award for excellence in engaging the public with science. In 2014 he was also awarded the Bragg prize for significant contributions to physics education and to widening participation within it.