Third Year Physics Overview

This week’s blog is actually about Imperial third year…I’ve been writing so much about other stuff this term that anyone reading this thinking of applying to here is probably under the impression that we don’t do any work at all!

Third year Physics consists of three core courses: ‘Light and Matter’, ‘Physics of the Universe’ and ‘Fluid Dynamics’. I am doing LM this term—so far it is a continuation of Atomic Physics from last year—an in-depth look at what goes on inside real atoms and how they interact with light. It has two more parts about light and magnetic fields interacting with solids, which look like a continuation of Solid State. I wasn’t such a fan of either of those courses last year, so it’s kind of a pain that you can’t drop this one, though I would like to work on my Atomic Physics understanding a bit. Solid State, last year at least seemed quite separate from anything else we did, and though parts of it were interesting (semi-conductors for example) I didn’t feel like I really had any physical insight into what was actually going on in the systems. I guess I will have to tell you how this year’s course turns out.

The Atomic Physics bit that we are doing at the moment is interesting—it’s just that it involves a lot of perturbations and add-ons as well as just horrific differential equations at every turn, so you can’t work through bits of it from some nice first principles…

As well as the core courses you get to pick four options. If you are doing a three year degree then your project will take up one of these slots. I am doing doing the integrated masters course, so my project is next year and I get a full four options. There is also the option of taking a Horizons (non-science) course, for credit, which is what I am doing this year by doing an Extended Essay on the rhetoric of science in the media.

My other choices are Astrophysics, Advanced Classical Physics and Foundations of Quantum Mechanics. I didn’t actually want to take Astro that much, because I really wasn’t a fan of half of last year’s Sun, Stars and Planets course—space is really interesting, obviously, but Astrophysics is full of really dull formulae and awful derivations with absolutely every approximation bunged into them and crossing out all constants at the end anyway. (See many of last year’s blogs for more annoyance on this topic.) However, the Cosmology course in fourth year has Astrophysics as a pre-requisite and I really do want to study Cosmology! However Astro this year has been so much more enjoyable, and is the easiest of my courses so I won’t complain!

Advanced Classical (ACP) and Foundations of Quantum (FQM) are much more hard-core maths courses, the first a more mathematically rigorous approach to mechanics, and looking at those nasty systems that you always avoided, like non-inertial reference frames. It will also go on to electrodynamics and relativity—basically things that are not quantum. The lecturer is good too—in fact all my lecturers this year have been really good. All of them have great notes too, which I appreciate so much! Thank you lecturers!

Foundations of Quantum is a great course—really hard as well though. This wasn’t/isn’t helped by the fact that the lecturer didn’t release solutions to the problems—he now does, but only for a small fraction of them, which is pretty miserable, especially when you just don’t really get what a question is asking, or why your answer took ten pages instead of a couple of lines. There’s a lot of new notation in this course too, which makes even basic algebra quite tricky, not to mention that hardly anything does what you would expect in quantum and nothing ever commutes (so AB doesn’t equal BA). However, I am still hoping that this will be the course that finally gives me an conceptual understanding of what is going on in Quantum.

Third year also includes labs (three three week experiments) but I am doing those next term, so I shall write more about them then. So far all I know is that one of the experiments involves measuring the wind speed and direction, and got some of my friends kicked out of Hyde Park because they didn’t have a risk assessment to carry a windsock and measuring equipment.

Next week I will find out about the professional skills module for this year as well, so I shall tell about that then.

The only other thing left is that small matter of the Comprehensive exams.

These count more than any other module towards your degree—I think they are 12% of the total mark of a four year course, and 16.5% of three year courses. They are two three hour papers on anything out of the core courses from the last three years and are meant to assess your problem solving skills and basically how well you know general physics. We have tutorials to prepare for them once a week, but obviously no one course for them, which feels strange, especially since they count for about the same percentage as the whole of first year!

Anyway, so that is the structure of third year Physics.

In other news we have landed(ish) on a comet 🙂 #goPhilae

I hope you were all watching the ESA livestream! Also if you go to XKCD the comic is being updated with the landing details.

This week I also went to see the poppies at the tower of London with my grandparents. They were amazing to look at though there were millions of people cramming around the gates to get a peep which was a bit hectic.


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