What is Physics?
Physics is concerned with the study of the universe from the smallest to the largest scale, why it is the way it is and how it works. Such knowledge is basic to scientific progress. The language of physics is mathematics, indeed formulating physical theories has sometimes required the development of new mathematical structures. Although physics is a fundamental science it is also a very practical subject. Physicists have to be able to design and build new instruments, from satellites to measure the properties of planetary atmospheres to record-breaking intense magnetic fields for the study of condensed matter. Many of the conveniences of modern life are based very directly on the understanding provided by physics. Many techniques used in medical imaging are derived directly from physics instrumentation. Even the internet was a spin-off from the information processing and communications requirement of high-energy particle physics. Looking to the future, growth areas that may have a big impact are nanotechnology, quantum computing and molecular biophysics.
Physics at Oxford
Oxford has one of the largest university physics departments in the UK and indeed worldwide, with an outstanding and very diverse research programme. Research is organised in six sub-departments: Astrophysics; Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics; Atomic and Laser Physics; Condensed Matter Physics (including Biophysics); Particle Physics; and Theoretical Physics. Researchers are also college Physics tutors; thus Physics students will come into personal contact with physicists working at the forefront of their subject. The concentration of expertise also ensures that the fourth year MPhys option courses bring you to the threshold of current research. The Physics course at Oxford is both challenging and mathematical with a strong emphasis on fundamental concepts such as optics and relativity, and can lead to subject specialism in the fourth year. Optional courses are also available including those provided by other departments.
The department is well equipped with state-of-the-art lecture facilities as well as teaching laboratories, which allow a wide choice of practicals and specialism. Tutorials give students direct and regular access to physicists actively involved in research and provide an opportunity to explore scientific ideas face-to-face with experts in the field. There is also excellent library provision available in the Radcliffe Science Library and in all colleges.
More than 40% of Physics graduates go on to study for a higher degree, leading to eventual careers in research in universities or in industry. Typical destinations include research and development, technical consultancy, manufacturing and science education. Many others enter professions unrelated to their subject, such as finance and business, in which the analytical and problem-solving skills they have developed are highly sought after.
Recent Physics graduates include a trainee clinical scientist and a postdoctoral research associate.
Nigel graduated in 1987 and went on to do a PhD in microelectronics. He says: ‘I have been working as an electronic engineer ever since, designing integrated circuits for a number of employers until 2006, when I became self-employed. My physics degree was a good preparation for a career in electronics, providing all the mathematical and scientific background required, but also giving the opportunity to study interesting theoretical subjects such as quantum mechanics and relativity.’