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Physics and Philosophy

Physics and Philosophy is a demanding and rewarding course, combining as it does the most rigorous and fundamental subjects in the arts and the sciences. It seeks understanding of the nature of reality and of our knowledge of it. Historically, there have been strong links between physics and philosophy, and the stimulus for each discipline lies in part in the other. The combination of the two provides a powerful background from which to proceed to graduate study in either, or to pursue other diverse careers.

Physics and Philosophy at Oxford

Oxford has one of the largest physics departments in the UK, with an outstanding and broad research programme. The wide range of expertise available in the department ensures the undergraduate curriculum is updated in the light of developments at the research frontier.

The Philosophy Faculty is the largest in the UK, and one of the largest and most prestigious in the world. It admits around 500 undergraduates annually and the library and the Philosophy Faculty facilities in the new Humanities building are acknowledged as among the best in the country. The large number of undergraduates and graduates reading Philosophy affords the opportunity to participate in a diverse and lively philosophical community.

The Oxford research group in Philosophy of Physics is extremely active, with interests in classical space-time theories, foundations of classical statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, quantum field theory and quantum gravity. It is the largest of its kind in the UK and among the foremost in the world.

Physics and philosophy are studied in parallel during the first three years. The physics corresponds to the more theoretical side of the standard three-year Oxford Physics course while the philosophy focuses on modern philosophy, particularly metaphysics and the theory of knowledge. The bridging subject, Philosophy of Physics, is studied in each of the first three years, and remains an option in the fourth year. Specialist lectures are given in this subject together with tutorials and classes.

Students who complete the first three years can, if they wish, leave with a BA degree. Students going on to the MPhysPhil in the fourth year may specialise in either Physics or Philosophy, or continue in their study of both disciplines and their interrelations. Other final-year options include a physics project or philosophy thesis.

Careers

Graduates in Physics and Philosophy offer an unusual and valuable combination of skills to employers in commerce and industry. Almost 40% go on to study for a higher degree. Some will enter science professions such as research and development or technical roles in industry. Many others enter professions unrelated to their subject. Recent graduates have entered sectors as diverse as law and finance, and include a technical policy adviser for a security agency, an auditor of central government departments and a solicitor.

Related courses

Students interested in this course might also like to consider Mathematics and Philosophy, Computer Science and Philosophy or Physics.

New MMathPhys Fourth Year

From 2015/16, the Physics and Mathematics Departments in Oxford will jointly offer a new integrated masters level course in Mathematical and Theoretical Physics. Physics and Philosophy students will be able to apply for transfer to a fourth year studying entirely mathematical and theoretical physics, completing the degree with an MMathPhys. The course features research-level training in Particle Physics, Condensed Matter Physics, Astrophysics, Plasma Physics and Continuous Media. Read more about this fourth year.

A typical weekly timetable

Your work is divided between tutorials and classes (two or three a week), lectures (about eight weekly) and private study. Private study (reading for and writing essays, completing problem sets) will take up the majority of your working time.

1st year
Courses

Physics

  • Mechanics and Special Relativity
  • Differential equations and linear algebra
  • Calculus and waves

Philosophy

  • Elements of deductive logic
  • Introduction to philosophy

Assessment

First University examinations:
Three written papers in Physics;
Two written papers in Philosophy

2nd year
Courses

Physics

  • Thermal physics
  • Electromagnetism
  • Quantum physics
  • Mathematical methods
  • Three physics practicals

Philosophy

  • Early Modern philosophy or Knowledge and reality
  • Philosophy of special relativity

Assessment

Final University examinations, Part A:
Three papers in Physics; satisfactory lab work

3rd year

Courses

One elective paper in either Physics or
Philosophy

Physics

A choice of three (or five if the elective paper is in Physics) of the following subjects:

  • Classical mechanics
  • Flows, fluctuations and complexity
  • Symmetry and relativity
  • Quantum, atomic and molecular physics
  • Sub-atomic physics
  • General relativity and cosmology
  • Condensed-matter physics

Philosophy

  • Philosophy of science option
  • Philosophy of quantum mechanics
  • Choice of Philosophy option (if the elective paper is in philosophy)

Assessment

Final University examinations, Part B:
Three or four written papers in Philosophy;
One or two written papers and one short paper in Physics

4th year

Courses

Three units chosen in any combination from the lists for Physics and Philosophy.
Advanced philosophy of physics is an option.

Assessment

Final University examinations, Part C:
A mix (three in all) of written papers and essays, or thesis (in Philosophy), or project (in Physics)

  • A-levels: A*AA – this should either be A*A in Physics and Mathematics (with the A* in either Physics or Mathematics) plus any other A, or A* in Further Mathematics with AA in Mathematics and Physics
  • Advanced Highers: AA/AAB
  • IB: 39 (including core points) with 766 at HL (the 7 should be in either Physics or Mathematics)
  • Or any other equivalent (see details of international qualifications

Candidates are expected to have Physics and Mathematics to A-level, Advanced Higher, or Higher Level in the IB or another equivalent. The inclusion of a Maths Mechanics module would also be highly recommended. Further Mathematics and an arts subject can be helpful to candidates in completing this course, although they are not required for admission.

All candidates must also take the Physics Aptitude Test as as part of their application. Please see how to apply for further details.

All candidates must follow the application procedure as shown in how to apply. The information below gives specific details for students applying for this course.

Application information

If your application for Physics and Philosophy is unsuccessful you will be considered for Physics. If you do not want to be considered for Physics please make this clear at interview.

Written work

You do not need to submit any written work when you apply for this course.

Written test

All candidates must take the Physics Aptitude Test (PAT), normally at their own school or college, on 5 November 2014. Separate registration for this test is required and the final deadline for entries is 15 October 2014. It is the responsibility of the candidate to ensure that they are registered for this test. See www.patoxford.org.uk for further details.

What are tutors looking for?

Philosophy is not usually taught in British schools, but anyone who has an interest in general questions about the nature of science, mathematics, mind, knowledge, or truth has an interest in philosophy. No more than that is needed – you are not disadvantaged if you have not studied philosophy before. During the interview, Philosophy tutors will be looking for a critical and analytical approach to abstract questions and an ability to defend a point of view by reasoned argument.

The Physics tutors will ask you the same style of questions about mathematics and physics as they ask Physics applicants, to determine your mathematical and problem-solving ability and potential for further study (see Physics for further information).

Selection criteria

Candidates may wish to refer to the selection criteria for for Physics and for Philosophy.

Suggested reading

There are many introductions to philosophy: we recommend Myles Burnyeat and Ted Honderich’s Philosophy as it is a very useful collection. Martin Hollis' An Invitation to Philosophy and Simon Blackburn’s Think are also recommended but feel free to pick up any introductory or beginners’ text.

Please see the entry for Physics for further suggestions.

James, 1st year

'Philosophy has an effect on how you view physics; how we look at where the theories came from. For example, if we're asking, ‘does time exist?,' as a physicist you have some idea of what time is, and it brings a different attitude to the whole question.'

Contextual information

The Key Information Sets provide a lot of numbers about the Oxford experience – but there is so much about what you get here that numbers can’t convey. It’s not just the quantity of the Oxford education that you need to consider, there is also the quality – let us tell you more.

Oxford’s tutorial system

Regular tutorials, which are the responsibility of the colleges, are the focal point of teaching and learning at Oxford. The tutorial system is one of the most distinctive features of an Oxford education: it ensures that students work closely with tutors throughout their undergraduate careers, and offers a learning experience which is second to none.

A typical tutorial is a one-hour meeting between a tutor and one, two, or three students to discuss reading and written work that the students have prepared in advance. It gives students the chance to interact directly with tutors, to engage with them in debate, to exchange ideas and argue, to ask questions, and of course to learn through the discussion of the prepared work. Many tutors are world-leaders in their fields of research, and Oxford undergraduates frequently learn of new discoveries before they are published.

Each student also receives teaching in a variety of other ways, depending on the course. This will include lectures and classes, and may include laboratory work and fieldwork. But the tutorial is the place where all the elements of the course come together and make sense. Meeting regularly with the same tutor – often weekly throughout the term – ensures a high level of individual attention and enables the process of learning and teaching to take place in the context of a student’s individual needs.

The tutorial system also offers the sustained commitment of one or more senior academics – as college tutors – to each student’s progress. It helps students to grow in confidence, to develop their skills in analysis and persuasive argument, and to flourish as independent learners and thinkers.

More information about tutorials

The benefits of the college system

  • Every Oxford student is a member of a college. The college system is at the heart of the Oxford experience, giving students the benefits of belonging to both a large and internationally renowned university and a much smaller, interdisciplinary, college community.
  • Each college brings together academics, undergraduate and postgraduate students, and college staff. The college gives its members the chance to be part of a close and friendly community made up of both leading academics and students from different subjects, year groups, cultures and countries. The relatively small size of each college means that it is easy to make friends and contribute to college life. There is a sense of belonging, which can be harder to achieve in a larger setting, and a supportive environment for study and all sorts of other activities.
  • Colleges organise tutorial teaching for their undergraduates, and one or more college tutors will oversee and guide each student’s progress throughout his or her career at Oxford. The college system fosters a sense of community between tutors and students, and among students themselves, allowing for close and supportive personal attention to each student’s academic development.

It is the norm that undergraduates live in college accommodation in their first year, and in many cases they will continue to be accommodated by their college for the majority or the entire duration of their course. Colleges invest heavily in providing an extensive range of services for their students, and as well as accommodation colleges provide food, library and IT resources, sports facilities and clubs, drama and music, social spaces and societies, access to travel or project grants, and extensive welfare support. For students the college often becomes the hub of their social, sporting and cultural life.

More about Oxford’s unique college system and how to choose a college