Our guide to physics
Hotcourses Editor

Our guide to physics

First published date November 28 2013 Amended date November 28 2013

If you find yourself occasionally looking at the stars thinking, ‘What the Jupiter is up there?’ you now have the opportunity to find out.


Physics strives to answer one of life’s most fundamental questions: how does the universe behave? To answer this question, which has bamboozled us for more than 2000 years, physicists study matter and its motion through space and time. As you might imagine, fathoming out exactly what makes the universe tick isn't easy. No surprise then, that physics is considered the oldest academic discipline of all. But it is also one of the most progressive. Physics is pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge and powering the technological revolution. Without physics you wouldn’t have the computer screen you’re looking at now or the iPhone in your pocket.


Where could a physics course lead?

A physics course is the route to a diversity of exciting careers. It might help you land a job in space, searching for black holes or designing robots that rove around Mars. Remember, the UK is second only to the USA in space science.

You might choose to work in particle physics or quantum theory, exploring the surreal subatomic realm of electrons, neutrinos and quarks. You might pursue a career in medicine, helping revolutionise medical practice. Surgery is often carried out using lasers and our bodies are imaged using x-ray and ultrasound. And even newer techniques like using nanobots to bombard individual cancer cells are continuously being developed. Alternatively, you might apply your knowledge to solve the world's climate change concerns, developing alternative energy sources such as solar energy or nuclear fusion. Needless to say, a physics course opens doors to a wealth of fascinating jobs.


What do you do on a physics course?

Typical physics courses involve a mixture of lectures, tutorials, computing and lab work. You might do a physics course to further your knowledge about the universe. Or you might choose a course that lets you specialise in a particular area, ranging from astrophysics to optics, cosmology to electromagnetism, or quantum physics to thermodynamics.

University degree courses typically last three years. In the final year you are expected to undertake a scientific project working with a research group, which often leads to publication in scientific literature.


How can you choose the right physics course for you?

Before choosing a course make sure it matches your interests and specialises in the areas that suit you. If you find, say, the history of physics fascinating and want to study some of the greatest ever thinkers - Galileo, Newton, Einstein - you don't want to find yourself engrossed in rocket science. Find out about the teacher or professor leading the course, and ask yourself, do they seem inspirational? What are their main areas of interest? And are their interests similar to yours?

Make sure you know exactly how much of the course involves computer and lab work. There might be an unusual piece of equipment you're desperate to use, so make sure the course providers supply it. 


What kind of person do you need to be?

To make the most a physics course you must be:

·         fascinated and intrigued by the world around you and its mysterious wonders.

·         eager to further our understanding of the universe.

·         prepared to study - and not be discouraged by - subjects like chemistry and maths.

·         happy to spend a lot of time in labs.

·         able to think creatively to grasp mind-boggling theoretical concepts like string theory and spacetime warps.


Did you know…?

·         All of humanity could fit in a sugar lump. Atoms are mostly empty space. And if you got the entire human race together and removed the empty space in all the atoms that make them up, what you would be left with would be smaller than a sugar lump. But it would weigh five billion tons.


·         We still do not know what makes up most of the universe. Visible matter only makes up two per cent of what scientists estimate to be the mass of the universe. What makes up dark matter remains a mystery.


·         We may not be the only universe. According to the standard model of cosmology, the universe we see is just one of an infinite number of universes existing side-by-side.


A quick quiz on famous physicists

1.    What theory is Sir Isaac Newton most famous for?

2.    Which Danish physicist came up with the model of the atom, with a nucleus and electrons orbiting around it?

3.    Which German theoretical physicist won a Nobel Prize as the originator of quantum theory?

4.    Who formulated the general theory of relativity?

5.    What country was Galileo from?


(Answers: 1. theory of gravitation 2. Niels Bohr 3. Max Planck 4. Albert Einstein 5. Italy)


By Nick Kennedy

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