Physics at the University of Oxford
Physics is the subject that provides us with the means to investigate the fundamental nature and behaviour of matter and of the Universe in which we live. Our knowledge is far from complete and progress can be made only by experiment and theory working together within the context of a disciplined understanding of basic Physics. The Physics course at Oxford aims to provide this understanding and to take students close to the existing limits of knowledge of many aspects of the physical world.
I would say that if you enjoy Physics it is well worth applying. The interviews sound scary but I enjoyed them quite a lot once I was there. Don’t worry about getting everything right in the interviews; it is how you approach the problems that is important, and of course a clear interest in the subject!
The teaching of Physics relies on lectures and practical work, including projects, in the Department of Physics and on tutorials in College. Tutorials are arranged singly or in pairs and all undergraduates receive two per week during their first year and an average of three per fortnight in the second and third years. During the fourth year, leading to an MPhys, the teaching relies on lectures, classes and project work, assisted by tutorials. The Physics tutors are committed to the value of personal contact with undergraduates as exemplified by the tutorial system and by small classes.
When you apply to Physics at Oxford, you must also register to sit the PAT, the Physics Admissions Test. The PAT is a two-hour paper which covers mathematics and physics with marks split equally between the two subjects. The PAT makes up the primary criterion when shortlisting candidates for interview. Some additional candidates are added to the short‐list, either because their test score may not reflect their true ability (such as candidates with medical certificates) or because their application shows other quite exceptional evidence of excellence, such as candidates with particularly strong GCSE grades from schools where such achievement is unusual.
Some of the PAT questions are on mathematics, but the physics questions are also rather mathematical. You shouldn’t need to be taking the Further Mathematics A-level (we admit a number of students without it), but the more practice you have with the mathematics you have learnt, the more adept and comfortable you will be when you need it. Do extra problems – the unassigned problems in your textbook, for instance, or ask your teachers about other textbooks.
Prof. Jeff Tseng, Tutor in Physics at St Edmund Hall
If you are shortlisted for interview, interviews will happen sometime in December. It is useful to keep in mind that your interviewers will want to see you relaxed and thinking calmly and clearly. One way to think of this is that in order to make admissions decisions, tutors are collecting measurements on the candidates; the interviews (typically, there will be three) are simply three more data points, and tutors want to base their decisions on good-quality data points which tell them something about the candidates. So interviewers also want your interview to go well – it gives the best data. If you’re nervous, take a deep breath and start again. If something isn’t clear, ask.
There’s no need to try and mimic the content of an actual physics interview, because that’s rather difficult. But what I’ve noticed is that for a number of students, their Oxford interview seems to be the first time they’ve ever sat down to talk about academic subjects with an adult stranger. That can be rather daunting. One thing which could help take the edge off of it is to arrange to have conversations with (for instance) a teacher who hasn’t taught you before.
Prof. Jeff Tseng, Tutor in Physics at St Edmund Hall.
It is important to remember that interviews at Oxford are academic – the content will build upon material that you have covered at school (or is on the PAT syllabus). Bear in mind also that it is very difficult to tell how well you actually did in an interview. This is because in the interview itself, tutors are generally less interested in how well you can do problems you’re familiar with, and more interested in how you think through ideas you’ve never seen before. So if you already know something, tutors are likely to speed by and go on to the next topic. This means that at some point, things may start to feel less familiar, and by the end, you may not feel that you finished the last problem. That will not be an uncommon experience among candidates, and is not something to worry about.
Why has the recent detection of gravitational waves been one of the most important discoveries in modern times for astrophysics? And what are the implications of the new Advanced LIGO gravitational-wave detector for future discoveries about black holes? Philipp Podsiadlowski (Professor of Physics and Tutor in Physics at St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford) explains. This is one in a series of short ‘Teddy Talks’ presented at St Edmund Hall’s Research Expo in 2017.
An introduction to pulsars: objects that have more mass than the sun but are only around 20km in diameter, possessing an extremely high rotational stability and a very strong magnetic field. Aris Karastergiou (Physics Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford) describes them as “nature’s ticking clocks” and explains how the changing rate of ‘ticks’ can inform you about the movement of the ‘clocks’. This is one in a series of short ‘Teddy Talks’ presented at St Edmund Hall’s Research Expo in 2017.
Professor of Physics and Tutor in Physics
Professor Philipp Podsiadlowski is a Tutorial Fellow in Physics. His research is in the field of stellar astrophysics.
Associate Professor and Tutor in Physics
Professor Jeff Tseng is a particle physicist who deals with special relativity and is a member of the ATLAS experiment at CERN, in Geneva, which started taking data in 2010 with the highest-energy proton-proton collisions ever made in a controlled environment. He also has expertise in building large-scale computer systems.
College Lecturer in Physics
Dr Jo Ashbourn teaches the first-year Maths courses and second-year Thermal Physics course, which covers thermodynamics, kinetic theory and statistical mechanics. Her current research is focused on theoretical aspects of solar physics and fusion plasma phenomena as well as a study of dusty plasmas and the creation of novel nanoparticles in high energy plasmas.
Senior Research Fellow in Astrophysics
Dr Aris Karastergiou teaches the third-year papers ‘Symmetry and Relativity’ and ‘General Relativity and Cosmology’. He specialises in astrophysical problems related to pulsars, as well as observational and computational techniques to achieve pulsar science goals with next generation telescopes.
Physics research at St Edmund Hall