I decided to study Physics due to a general interest in Science (particularly space). What do I enjoy most about Physics? Those moments when you can say 'Ah! So that's why!'... It never gets old. It was also enjoyable to see the same sorts of feelings amongst secondary school students whom I was teaching this year.
My single favourite experience was when I was in the library late at night and the script I was writing (actually to do with rocket science) finally ran properly. I had done no proper computing before and actually really enjoyed getting to grips with new stuff.
The best thing about Physics at Oxford is that you are taught by researchers at the cutting-edge of their field. In first year, one of our tutors was even on BBC News talking about neutrinos – very cool! The personalised feedback you get from tutors really is invaluable, and the tutorials and labs build upon the ideas introduced in lectures so you don’t get left behind. Labs are like marmite – some people love them, some people do the bare minimum to get through them. Falling into the latter category, it’s fortunate for me that labs only contribute a small percentage to the final degree! On the whole I’ve really enjoyed the course and am very excited for my final two years.
An interesting element of the physics course comes in the second year, when you have to give a 15-minute presentation on any topic in Physics to your tutors and college coursemates. Topics included optical tweezers, space elevators, an incredibly strange talk about using the eye as an energy source, and my own talk about the physics behind the success of British cycling, which ended up containing very little (if any!) Physics.
The first year gives you a very solid groundwork in the mathematics that you will need to progress (differential equations, linear algebra, vector calculus), as well as introducing you to some further Physics concepts (electromagnetism and Special Relativity). By the second year, you are doing ‘real’ Physics, namely with Quantum Mechanics – a unique part of the course as it offers undergraduates an opportunity to learn about a piece of Physics that is universally not well understood. The combination of problem sheets and practical work keeps you occupied, and ensures that you really make leaps and bounds into this world. After the Oxford Physics course, you really don’t have many gaps in your knowledge of this area!
The practical course at Oxford really sets its Physics course apart from those at other universities. On average, we spend one day (about seven hours) a week in labs, doing all manner of experiments; optics, electromagnetism, computing, electronics... You name it, it’s there! This really complements your learning of the material from lectures, classes, and tutorials, and even can introduce you to some new concepts or ideas that you had not considered. In short, a big bonus to the course!
edX is a website that contains many brief, free courses on a very wide range of topics at an introductory university level. It includes recorded lectures & problems from Universities including MIT and UC Berkeley. I used it, as a physicist, to get some idea of what the courses I would be studying at University would be like.
Mr. Tompkins is a character created by George Gamow in a series of books designed to make some of the stranger phenomena in the physical world a little easier to visualize. Bored in a series of lectures, the character enters a dream in which the speed of light is reduced to a much lower value, and allows Gamow to show the consequences of special relativity in a much more familiar environment. Later chapters cover thermodynamics and atomic structure. Great for the interested and the confused, without any hint of mathematics.
I found reading "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" by Douglas Hoffstadder really helpful in developing my higher logical thinking, as it introduces you to some logic and mathematics in quite a whimsical and interesting way. A good, but heavy, read.
As a physicist I personally found I was asked very few personal questions, and nothing about my personal statement; every question was either mathematical or physics. Examples of the physics questions were describing the path of a particle in electric and magnetic fields, or how many times a ball would bounce off the sides of a hole it fell into, or estimating how far a person could shoot an arrow. In general, I found that reaching a perfectly accurate answer was less important than using a sensible method, and describing how you were arriving at your answers. Examples of maths questions I had were to sketch the graph of x^sin(x), or to calculate what fraction of the earth's surface was visible to a satellite at a given height. Again, the process of answering was more important than the answer itself, and you don't need to be afraid to ask for help if you need to!
Applicants that might be offered a place are invited for interview in December. See Physics interviews for more information.
Make sure you read the official prospectus entry for the course which contains entry requirements, full course structure, additional interesting resources and full details of the application process.
If you're going to apply, you'll want to check which Oxford colleges offer this course.