In Praise of Natural Sciences

The other day I was chatting with some students in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex. One thing that came up was the fact that I’m basing the material for my Second Year Theoretical Physics module on the notes I took when I was a second-year undergraduate student at Cambridge over thirty years ago. I mentioned that to counter suggestions that are often made that the physics curriculum has been excessively “dumbed down” over the years. It may have been elsewhere, of course, but not on my watch. In fact, despite the misfortune of having me as a lecturer, many of the students in my class are picking up things far faster than I did when I was their age!

Anyway, that led to a general discussion of the changing nature of university education. One point was that in my day there weren’t any four-year “Integrated Masters” degrees, just plain three-year Bachelors. Teaching was therefore a bit more compressed than it is now, especially at Cambridge with its shorter teaching terms. We teach in two 12-week blocks here at Sussex. Week 11 of the Spring Term is about to start so we’re nearing the finishing line for this academic year and soon the examinations will be upon us.

The other thing that proved an interesting point of discussion was that the degree programme that I took was the Natural Sciences Tripos That meant that I did a very general first year comprising four different elements that could be chosen flexibly. I quickly settled on Physics, Chemistry and  Mathematics for Natural Sciences to reflect my A-level results but was struggling for the fourth. In the end I picked the one that seemed most like Physics, a course called Crystalline Materials. I didn’t like that at all, and wish I’d done some Biology instead – Biology of Cells and Biology of Organisms were both options – or even Geology, but I stuck with it for the first year.

Having to do such a wide range of subjects was very challenging. The timetable was densely packed and the pace was considerable. In the second year, however, I was able to focus on Mathematics and Physics and although it was still intense it was a bit more focussed. I ended up doing Theoretical Physics in my final year, including a theory project.

My best teacher at School, Dr Geoeff Swinden,  was a chemist (he had a doctorate in organic chemistry from Oxford University) and when I went to Cambridge I fully expected to specialise in Chemistry rather tha Physics. I loved the curly arrows and all that. But two things changed. One was that I found the Physics content of the first year far more interesting – and the lecturers and tutors far more inspiring – than Chemistry, and the other was that my considerable ineptitude at practical work made me doubt that I had a future in a chemistry laboratory. And so it came to pass that I switched allegiance to Physics, a decision I am very glad I made. It was only towards the end of my degree that I started to take Astrophysics seriously as a possible specialism, but that’s another story.

As we are now approaching examination season I’ve been dealing with some matters in my role as External Examiner for Natural Sciences (Physics) at Cambridge, a position I have held since last year. It’s certaintly extremely interesting to see things from the other side of the fence, thirty years on since my finals. In particular I was struck last year by how many senior physicists there are at Cambridge who actually came as undergraduates expecting, like I did, to do Chemistry but also then switched. No doubt some moved in the opposite direction too, but the point is that the system not only allowed this but positively encouraged it.

Looking back, I think  there were great educational advantages in delaying  the choice of speciality the way a Natural Sciences degree did. New students usually have very little idea how different the subject is at university compared to A-level, so it seems unfair to lock them into a programme from Year 1. Moreover – and this struck me particularly talking to current students last week – a Natural Sciences programme might well prove a way of addressing the gender imbalance in physics by allowing female students (who might have been put off Physics at school) to gravitate towards it. Only 20% of the students who take Physics A-level are female, and that’s roughly the same mix that we find in the undergraduate population. How many more might opt for Physics after taking a general first year?

Another advantage of this kind of degree is that it gives scientists a good grounding in  a range of subjects. In the long run this could encourage greater levels of interdisciplinary thinking. This is important, since some of the most exciting areas of physics research lie at the interfaces with, e.g. chemistry and biology. Unfortunately, adminstrative structures often create barriers that deter such cross-disciplinary activities.



19 Responses to “In Praise of Natural Sciences”

  1. English education specialises much earlier than elsewhere. By the time they do A-levels students are already specialised into arts, sciences or languages, broadly. While the NatSci tripos props some doors open a bit longer, why not go for broader-based age 18 qualification, like the IB, and broader based degrees, with art requirements for scientists and science requurements for artists? After all, many people don’t know what they want to do even at 17 or 18. One US astronomy professor we both know went to university with the intent of becoming a concert cellist, but fell in love with physics. Such a conversion is just not possible in the UK.

    • Ed Witten has a Bachelor of Arts with a major in history and a minor in linguistics. Then he switched to economics and dropped out. Then he switched to mathematics. Then he changed departments without dropping out (similar to what you suggest) and moved to physics. Then he became a professor at Princeton at 28. Then he won the Fields Medal. 🙂

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Testimonies are always fascinating. I too loved chemistry before I loved physics, but I felt my allegiance changing in the term I took O-levels in each. I thoroughly enjoyed A-level chemistry as well as physics, but felt after that that I’d done enough chemistry and did not enjoy having to continue it at Cambridge. (The physical chemistry was fine as it was also physics, the inorganic was to me ‘real’ chemistry, ie what the elements did, the the organic drove me crazy.) As a non-biologist I too took up Crystalline Materials as the least worst option for my third “experimental science”, and enjoyed it moderately. But in my second year it was a joy at last to do what I had come for – physics and its mathematics.

    • telescoper Says:

      I did enjoy organic chemistry, but it seemed to sit apart from everything else, especially physics. It seemed to have its own logic rather like crypt licence crosswords. Fun, perhaps, but not necessarily something you might try to base a career on!

    • Sounds as though we’re all very similar. I started NatSci [PtIa: Maths/Physics/Chemistry/Material Sciences] assuming I’d continue Chemistry, which was by far my best subject. But I didn’t find it challenging – so I chose to do Physics, which was by far my worst subject, into PtIb/PtII…

      Luckily I stumbled across Astronomy by ticking a box on a PhD application form, or else I would likely have ended up in experimental PP (or maybe even the real world).

      • telescoper Says:

        I didn’t really do much Astronomy as an undergraduate. I still wonder how I got a place to do a PhD in the Astronomy Centre since I was far less prepared than we expect students to be nowadays..

  3. Chris Chaloner Says:

    … not to mention engineering – there is almost no difference between experimental physics and system engineering, as I discovered when I made the switch from RAL to industry…

  4. “a Natural Sciences programme might well prove a way of addressing the gender imbalance in physics by allowing female students (who might have been put off Physics at school) to gravitate towards it”

    I guess you are assuming that the number of female students should be higher than it is. If this is so, then the cause lies not at the university level, but before. At best, then, assuming that a Natural Sciences programme would increase the number of female students (and, presumably, decrease the number of male students, unless the total number of students in physics is increase accordingly (perhaps to the detriment of other subjects)), such a programme would address the symptom, not the cause. That isn’t necessarily an argument against it, but it might be more productive to address the cause.

    Of course, almost no field has a 50-50 gender imbalance, and the correspondence to the entire population is probably even worse if one includes all LGBTAP etc, so it seems to me that, if one sees gender balance as a goal, it would make more sense to address this in society as a whole.

    • Well, possible cause for the low number of female physics students is the lack of female academics. If we can address the symptom, that cause should sort itself out.

      • There is probably more than one cause, and it is not clear if this is the main one.

      • telescoper Says:

        I’m not sure it’s as simple as cause and symptom – it’s a circle, really. We need to break it.

      • Is there any field where there are equal numbers of men and women?

        If a man complains that women porn actresses earn far more than their male, errm, counterparts, even some die-hard feminists will reply “Of course they do, stupid” and “This is due to supply and demand, which is caused by innate differences between men and women”. 🙂 (Leaving aside the fact that recent studies show that women consume almost as much porn as men.)

      • Phillip, I don’t know if there are any fields with equal numbers of men and women.

        I do know that we’re still trying to correct cultural biases that have built up over hundreds of years, or more. If (as Peter better put) we can break some of those circles of gender imbalance, that’s probably worth doing.

      • telescoper Says:

        As a physicist I have a selfish reason for wanting to do this. The evidence is that female students who do physics at university do better than males, on average. I want to be able to recruit from the biggest possible pool of ability, and that means doing everything possible to counter the many biases and an imbalances that undoubtedly exist. I’m not saying we have to have a 50-50 split, just that we need to try to understand why it is currently 80-20.

      • “I do know that we’re still trying to correct cultural biases that have built up over hundreds of years, or more. If (as Peter better put) we can break some of those circles of gender imbalance, that’s probably worth doing.”

        I agree. However, we should ask whether, without further evidence, it is correct to assume that all imbalances are due to biases.

      • “The evidence is that female students who do physics at university do better than males, on average.”

        But perhaps that is due to some bias. Shouldn’t one try to counteract the bias, rather than reinforce it?

        One possibility is that there is a bias against women physicists, so that only the best stick it out. Get rid of that bias, and they will no longer do better on average.

        Suppose that there is evidence that male students do better on average in some area. Would it make sense to concentrate on recruiting males?

        Could one even publicly claim that such evidence exists without fear of death threats?

        One can’t have it both ways. One can’t demand not just equal rights (which should be not questioned at all; it is really a hallmark of civilized society) but also equal representation in fields where women are under-represented on the grounds that women are not on average less intelligent (or whatever) than men), but at the same time (perhaps in other areas) argue for more participation of women because they “think differently” or “bring along other abilities”.

  5. I would be interested to see the stats in terms of what people intend to specialise in for NatSci and the eventual specialisation for Part II.

    In my experience (as a PhD student/supervisor in 2001) a lot of people applied for Physics thinking it was going to be like A level and had a nasty surprise. These people usually switched to Earth Sciences, Materials or Chemistry in Part 1B (second year).I didn’t hear too many stories of people switching the other way.

    There was one exception to this – one of my students who switched from Chem to Phys as he found Chem not enough of a challenge in 1A.
    Amusingly he found the Physics degree “too easy” as well and was moaning he should have done Maths…needless to say he achieved a First for all 4 years.
    There were lot of brilliant people like that at Cambridge which made me glad I had not done my undergrad degree there!

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