University of Exeter Handbook (Physics) Questions/Comments Department (Physics)

Physics at University

Introduction to Undergraduate Study

These documents (which are a subset of the complete Department Handbook) comprise a general introduction to the expectations, structure, assessment and examinations of the undergraduate degree programmes as well as links to detailed information about particular modules. Please read the material carefully and refer to the Department Handbook continually throughout your degree. Use it to make sure that you understand which modules your degree programme requires you to take and how you will be assessed. Be particularly careful to make yourself aware of modules involving continuous assessment, and their associated deadlines. Stage 1 of your degree is a qualifying year that you need to pass to proceed to the Stage 2 year. Assessment in the second, and subsequent stages, will all contribute towards the mark that will determine your final degree classification.

For each module of your degree, information is provided about the instructors, duration, rationale, expected learning outcomes, texts, prerequisites, revision and detailed syllabus. Read this carefully before you start the module. The module descriptors conform to a standard template. They will enable you to monitor your progress and to assist and direct your preparatory work for lectures and your subsequent efforts to master the material presented.

The University, in line with the national norm, expects 10 hours of student work per credit taken. Students are therefore expected to devote at least two hours of private study to work associated with each lecture, in addition to that associated with tutorials, self-study packs, problems sessions, revision, etc..

Physics is an exciting and rapidly developing subject that has been the genesis of many amazing new discoveries and ideas. It encompasses our understanding from the very small (10-15 m) to the very large (1010 light years) and between these two extremes lie an enormous number of phenomena. However, the strength and beauty of physics is that these phenomena are connected and interpretable through its laws and principles. The purpose of your degree programme is to enable you to comprehend these principles, to understand how to apply them to new problems, and to investigate experimentally new situations.

Some of the material covered will be specific to particular topics, but much of it, if correctly comprehended, will provide you with a framework of knowledge and understanding (beyond simple factual information) that will act as the framework upon which, if you choose, you can build a career as a scientist or scientific manager.

A wide variety of career opportunities are open to graduates in Physics, but analysis of their employment indicates that 75-80% pursue careers in which they use their physics skills and scientific training. Consequently, the degrees we offer need to develop the rigour and expertise necessary for someone employed as a professional scientist.

The foundation of such a training involves an appreciation of:

  1. the principles of classical and modern physics;
  2. the rigorous application of these principles through the use of mathematics;
  3. the important developments that follow from fundamental principles and their applications;
  4. the techniques of experimental physics;
  5. the principles involved in the design of a new scientific investigation.

Stage 1 - Preparing the Ground

Physics is conceptually demanding, and command of the subject is not easily attained. You will have to work at it. Short bursts of panic activity are no alternative to steady application. Each module builds on the foundation created by earlier modules, and consequently you disadvantage yourself if you only have limited knowledge of what has gone before. Private study to supplement your lectures and laboratory classes is essential, and you must not suppose that you can succeed with a minimum of effort. As a guide, you should expect to spend a couple of hours in total on the preparation before, and comprehension after, each individual lecture.

During Stage 1 of your degree programme you develop your comprehension of physics and become familiar with a variety of basic mathematical tools. The concepts and phenomena you meet are many and varied, but they are all united by the underlying principles of physics.

Stage 2 - The Foundations of Physics

Stage 2 will provide you with a firm foundation of physics, and the principles which constitute the framework of the subject. Properly understood these can enable you to analyse and qualitatively understand new situations, gaining insight in identifying the important features.

In addition, the use of mathematics to give the principles a precise form provides physics with the ability to make detailed quantitative predictions. This has proved important not only in providing verifiable tests of the principles but also in developing new technologies.

The core of our current knowledge is centred on three important areas:

It can be argued that Quantum Mechanics is the key to all physics, since even quantum theories of gravity are being developed. Hence, it is important to become familiar with the new ideas it contains as early as possible. It provides a description of the behaviour of atomic and subatomic particles, introducing concepts and ideas that are uncomfortable since they are contrary to our macroscopic intuition. Entities we think of as particles have wave properties and are described by probability distributions, with the continuity and certainty of classical physics replaced by quantum jumps and fuzziness. Nonetheless, this 'new physics' has proved to be extremely powerful and accurate in its predictive capabilities. Experiment and theory are in remarkable agreement; quantum mechanics unquestionably provides the foundation for the best description that we have of the physical universe.

We currently believe that there are four forces of nature with the macroscopic world dominated by two of them - gravitation and electromagnetism. The electromagnetic force holds atoms, molecules and materials together and plays a vital role in our understanding of almost all existing and potential technological developments. The laws of Electromagnetism as enunciated by James Clerk Maxwell enable us to comprehend phenomena involving electromagnetic radiation across the whole of the spectrum, from microwaves, through the optical region, to X rays and beyond. Optics was very important technologically in the early part of this century, and the demands of the modern communications industry have resulted in its resurgence, involving a substantial extension of our description of the interaction of light with atoms. The laser is probably the most widely known example of a development from optics, which has made an enormous impact technologically. We are now at the threshold of an era that will see many other developments of equal significance.

The evolution of our understanding of physics starts with simple systems such as two objects exerting a force (gravitational or electromagnetic) upon one another, and the mathematical description often leads to good predictions of the behaviour of such systems. The real world, however, only very rarely involves simple systems, and phenomena of interest to physicists will often involve 1023 objects or more interacting with one another through (say) electromagnetic forces.

In such large systems, much of physical interest is determined by statistical considerations involving the average behaviour of the constituents rather than the exact behaviour of each. Statistical Physics was developed to understand the behaviour of such large systems, and leads to the concepts of heat, temperature, entropy, and free energy that govern the thermal behaviour of matter as described by thermodynamics.

The three cornerstones (quantum mechanics, electromagnetism and statistical physics) are intellectually demanding, but they provide the core of most of physics and of our understanding of the evolution of our universe. The other modules in the second and subsequent years draw in part on your knowledge of this core, and it is vital that you make every effort to achieve a sound understanding.

Stages 3 and 4 - Being a Physicist

Stages 3 and 4 of the programme allow you to see the scope for applying these principles in a number of important broad areas like Nuclear and High-Energy Particle Physics, Solid State Physics and the technologically important Communications and Devices areas. Other modules illustrate how the principles can be applied in greater depth in a particular area, getting closer to the frontier of the subject.

The fundamentals of Physics have application across the whole of science. They have stood the test of time and most are likely to continue to do so during your careers. However, science progresses at an enormous rate, and the modules at levels 3 and M will introduce you to but a sample of our current body of understanding relating it to the core of Physics that you have already studied. The detail may be modified with time but the principles are likely to remain unchanged.

On graduation, you may choose to specialise in a particular area, pursuing a research career; or you may embark on a scientific career which uses a broad understanding of the subject. In both cases, the skills developed in organizing and managing the scientific investigation of your project and bringing it to a successful conclusion will be very valuable, as will the exercises of writing your work and writing project reports. The discipline of clearly presenting what you know, what you have done, and why you have done it, is a very important skill in all professions.

University of Exeter Handbook (Physics) Questions/Comments Department (Physics)