Essays in Physics

In the course of a rare episode of tidying-up in my office I came across this. You can click on it to make it bigger if it’s difficult to read. It was the first paper of my finals examination at the University of Cambridge way back in 1985. Yes, that really was thirty years ago…


As you can probably infer from the little circle around number 4, I decided to write an Essay about topic 4. I’ve always been interested in detective stories so this was an easy choice for me, but I have absolutely no idea what I wrote about for three hours. Nor do I recall actually ever getting a mark for the essay, so I never really knew whether it really counted for anything. I do remember, however, that I had another 3-hour examination in the afternoon of the same day, two three-hour examinations the following day, and would have had two the day after that had I not elected to do a theory project which let me off one paper at the end.

I survived this rigorous diet of examinations (more-or-less) and later that year moved to Sussex to start my DPhil, returning here couple of years ago as Head of the same School in which I did my graduate studies. To add further proof that the universe is cyclic, this year I’ve taken on the job of being External Examiner for physics at the University of Cambridge, the same place I did my undergraduate studies.

Anyway, to get back to the essay paper, we certainly don’t set essay examinations like that here in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex and I suspect they no longer do so in the Department of Physics at Cambridge. I don’t really see the point of making students write such things under examination conditions. On the other hand, I do have an essay as part of the coursework in my 2nd Year Theoretical Physics module. That may seem surprising and I’m not sure the students like the idea, but the reason for having it is that theoretical physics students don’t do experimental work in the second year so they don’t get the chance to develop their writing skills through lab reports. The essay titles I set are much more specific than those listed in the paper above and linked very closely to the topics covered in the lectures, but it’s still an opportunity for physics students to practice writing and getting some feedback on their efforts. Incidentally, some of the submissions last year were outstandingly good and I’m actually quite looking forward to reading this year’s crop!

3 Responses to “Essays in Physics”

  1. Adrian Burd Says:

    Interesting. I do think that writing is a skill that is under-developed in many students. I have a writing intensive course that I teach for first year students, and the writing quality varies from the exceptional to the incomprehensible in a class of 15, with a strong bias towards the lower end.

    When you grade the essays, do you take account of the essay structure, grammar, and spelling? Or do you just grade the content?

  2. Some potential blog posts, there …

    Particularly 2, 4 and 5.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    I enjoyed that warm-up general paper. I wrote an essay on Einstein as a tragic figure in view of the fact that the world went with Bohr and Heisenberg rather than him and Schoedinger in interpreting quantum mechanics, and his failure to find a unified field theory. Probably a bit pretentious but I’d said all I wanted to say after 90 mins and walked out to revise for the next paper.

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