Physics aims to understand the behaviour of matter and energy from the scale of subatomic particles to that of the Universe itself. From digital watches, fridges and cars, through computers and communication systems to water supplies and electrical systems, modern life is built using the understanding of nature that physics provides. For example, architecture, the various fields of engineering, nursing, medicine and other health professions, and agricultural science all use aspects of physics.
We are currently in an incredibly exciting period in physics. The technological advances of the last 20 years have had an enormous impact on all our lives and almost all of these advances rely on advances in physics (indeed this is true of virtually all technological advances since the Industrial Revolution). Modern physics provides a framework for understanding – and contributing to – major advances in technology.
Physics is a very broad discipline: it encompasses everything from building huge laser equipment to study gravitational waves, to creating tiny nanoelectronic devices that can act as transistors or sensors, to measuring the behaviour of the upper atmosphere in order to understand global warming, to obtaining fundamental theoretical understandings of cosmology and sub-atomic physics. All of these are major activities within our department, as is astronomy.
In order to contribute to these advances, we must understand why the world around us behaves the way it does. Newton's understanding of forces, momentum and motion underpins much of modern technology. More recent (early nineteenth century) understanding of heat, electricity and magnetism, waves, sound, and light continues to play a large role in modern industry.
The teaching and learning of these ideas, and the application of them through experiment, is at the heart of physics, astronomy and engineering education at all levels.
The Department of Physics and Astronomy has many collaborations nationally and internationally that give access to some of the best facilities around the world. For example, we are a member of CERN, the enormous particle accelerator centre in Geneva; particle physicists from UC are involved with a huge neutrino detector called IceCube that is being built at the South Pole; condensed matter physicists utilise the Dutch free electron laser in Utrecht; while atmospheric probing is carried out in the Antarctic at Scott Base. The department is also part of the MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a leading Centre of Research Excellence. In addition, we collaborate with the Van der Veer Institute and hospitals both on medical imaging and radiation therapy.
Certain courses require a strong background in Year 13 physics and mathematics with calculus. If you do not have this background PHYS 111 is the course you need to take first. If you have no, or only a limited background, you should consider taking our Science Headstart summer preparatory courses in physics, mathematics and calculus, to prepare you for PHYS 111.
We offer Physics courses suitable for four different purposes:
- for studying Physics or Astronomy
- for studying Engineering
- for studying biological or environmental sciences and
- for philosophical or general interest.
The core first-year Physics courses are offered as a sequence. Where you start university Physics depends on how well you have done in NCEA Level 3 physics and mathematics with calculus.
Students with 14 credits of NCEA Level 3 physics and mathematics with calculus can enrol in PHYS 101, in order to advance into a full second-year Physics or Astronomy programme, or to meet the Engineering Intermediate Year Physics requirements.
Those students who have not gained 14 credits will be advised to enrol in an introductory Physics course, PHYS 111. This course will build a solid foundation before enrolling in the Semester 2 Physics course, PHYS 101, thus completing the Engineering Intermediate Year Physics requirements. The second semester Physics course PHYS 102 is also offered over the summer period.
Someone with an experimental and/or mechanical bent? Certainly these help. The necessary motivation is an enquiring mind and a fascination with natural phenomena. Rutherford was intrigued in childhood by seeing a stick apparently bend when dipped into a farm bucket of water; Einstein asked how his face would appear in a hand-held mirror if he ran at some significant fraction of the speed of light (answer: the image would not change). A budding physicist may share this fascination with and curiosity about the natural world.
The undergraduate Physics courses beyond first year at UC include such topics as: astrophysics, classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, electronics, atomic and molecular physics, nuclear and particle physics, optics, dynamics of atmospheres, quantum mechanics, relativity, signal analysis, solid state physics and thermal physics.
If you are considering further study, Physics is an ideal first-degree choice. Continuing to pursue Physics leads to many opportunities to work or travel overseas and in New Zealand. Many graduates have continued their study in areas such as Medical Physics, Engineering, teaching and patent law.
Many of our graduates are employed as physicists and can be found at Crown Research Institutes, the National Radiation Laboratory, medical physics departments of hospitals, universities and the Meteorological Service among many others. Some Physics graduates are not employed as scientists however – their analytical skills, numeracy and all-round thinking ability are in demand in many industries. Some of these graduates are snapped up by the IT and electronics industries, but those same skills are equally valued by merchant banks, stock brokers and other financial services companies, as well as by the armed services, police and aerospace industries (including airlines like Air New Zealand). Teaching, journalism and science communication too, all need people with physics training.
For further career information, please go to www.canterbury.ac.nz/careers