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.Follow @telescoper