2005 has been World Year of Physics — a year of activity and publicity for our favourite subject. Endorsed by the United Nations, the celebration was motivated by the centenary of Einstein's 'miraculous' year of landmark papers; its stated aim “to raise the worldwide public awareness for physics and more generally for physical sciences” (www.wyp2005.org). So how successful was World Year of Physics?

There's still one month to go, of course, but the list of celebratory events that have happened worldwide is long and varied. Einstein's work has inspired the arts, such as the UK Rambert Dance Company's ballet Constant Speed, and the Japanese Noh play The Hermit Isseki, whose title character ('Isseki' meaning 'one stone'...) is sought by a wise woman to answer questions about the Universe. Commemorative stamps have been issued from Argentina to China, Romania to Mali (http://fizjlk.fic.uni.lodz.pl/RUT/Stamps/wyp/wyp2005.html). Most bear the image of Einstein — there can be few people who have enjoyed such ubiquity in the history of philately.

Certainly, pegging World Year of Physics to Einstein's legacy was a shrewd move. For all that modern physicists might resent the wild-haired stereotype of a scientist, there's no doubting Einstein's fascination for the wider public, for his image and persona as much as the work he did. And that is strongly suggestive of how to go about engaging the public with science: not through a worthy presentation in a stuffy lecture theatre, but by presenting a more personal impression of science, and what it means to be a scientist.

One of the more successful projects of World Year of Physics ran along these lines. The 'quantum diaries' have recorded the day-to-day experience of physicists, using a modern medium — the blog (www.quantumdiaries.org). More than 30 contributors have logged the highs and lows, the excitements and the banalities, of a life in research, and in an impressive variety of languages. The quantum diaries began at the US Fermi National Laboratory, and the inclusive nature of the blog — its accessibility, its interactivity — has ensured international success. But it's even a great medium for reaching the US audience, whose national celebration of World Year of Physics has been somewhat compromised by the decentralized organization of education, in particular, and by having no single public broadcaster to promote the science agenda. The benefit of national science broadcasting is seen clearly in Australia, where a remarkably strong tradition of science programming on television and radio has created a high level of public interest in science, and an eventful World Year of Physics.

But the greatest impact and most positive response to the centenary celebration may well have been achieved outside the western world. For example, the Library of Alexandria in Egypt enjoyed an Einstein Symposium attended by physicists from the Middle and Far East, Europe and the USA, as well as exhibitions and meetings highlighting the work of Egyptian scientists for public and professionals alike. In countries less satiated with technology — whether real or Hollywood imaginings — there remains an audience keen to appreciate the wonders of physics. Fortunately, at least in some instances, it is encouraged by leaders that appreciate the importance of science education for economic development.

The value of a 'year of' could be questioned. Who, for instance, remembers that 2000 was World Mathematical Year? In some quarters, the expectations of World Year of Physics were low. Worldwide there have been mixed reactions, varying degrees of success. But there is no denying that World Year of Physics has served as a focus and incentive for promoting the history, the achievements, and the value of physics.

Incidentally, 2006 is International Year of Deserts and Desertification; it's also Rembrandt Year and Mozart Year, to commemorate the 400th and 250th anniversaries of their births, respectively. Expect 'Darwin Year' in 2009, marking 200 years since the birth of Charles Darwin and 150 years since the publication of On the Origin of Species. But remember the success of Year of Physics, played out on the world stage, and don't let's wait another hundred years to celebrate our subject on this scale.