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CC103: Minutes of meeting of Thursday 30th November 2000

Physics Consultative Committee

CC103: Minutes of meeting of Thursday 30th November 2000

Present: Ms Bessis, Mr Eckley, Mr Eldridge, Mr Jewsbury, Ms Knox, Mr Mach, Mr Sharp, Ms Somodi, Mr Wallhead, Prof. Longair, Dr Waldram, Dr Ward, Dr Batley.

1. The new student representatives were welcomed and the purpose of the committee was briefly described.

2. The draft minutes of the previous meeting were approved.

3. Matters Arising

Exam classing in Physical and Biological Sciences: A working party, including Prof. Longair as the Physics representative, is considering ways to improve the present disparity in exam classing between the physical and the biological science subjects in Part II and Part III. The biological subjects award very few II.2's or III's, while the physical science subjects award a higher fraction of Firsts. Gradual progress is being made.

4. Teaching Committee Matters

Dr Waldram reported on various issues currently being considered by the Teaching Committee:

New `A'-levels: the first students to have passed through the revised `A'-level physics courses will start Part IA physics in October 2002, and a working group has begun to consider the changes which will be needed to our teaching. Besides changes to the course syllabuses themselves, one possibility being actively considered is to begin the Part IA course with a special two-week session aimed primarily at consolidating mathematical technique. As at present, six lectures would be held during this period, but these would be non-quantitative lectures discussing important themes of physics and previewing many of the topics to come. The lectures would be supplemented by student self-assessment organised through colleges, and would be preceded by the sending out of much improved pre-course material before arrival at Cambridge. These ideas are now at the stage where student feedback is vital, and input as to how students could best be consulted would be very welcome. A document outlining the proposals will be prepared soon.

Maths for Natural Sciences: although it proved impossible for the physics department to take over responsibility for mathematics teaching within the Natural Sciences Tripos, a thorough review of the content of the mathematics courses will nevertheless be put in place.

It was noted that this term's Part IB maths lecturer had assumed a prior knowledge of material from the Part IA Mathematics Tripos rather than from the IA Natural Sciences course.

Part III Physics: two changes introduced this year are: a new Minor Option on Entreneurship, and a new mechanism whereby students taking Part III Projects submit two brief progress reports at intermediate stages. These reports are not considered as part of the formal project assessment, but will hopefully help ensure that projects being undertaken are feasible and keeping to time.

Safety Officer: the Cavendish lab now has a full-time safety officer (Dr Jane Blunt), and she will shortly be undertaking a review of safety issues connected with teaching.

Exam Classing in Part II and Part III: Chemistry have placed a proposal before the Faculty Board to include a carry-forward of the marks obtained at Part II as part of the exam classing at Part III. The view of the Physics TC is that it is probably best for students if the current classing system is left unchanged, i.e. that classing in Part II and Part III remain completely separate. Students then get ``two bites at the cherry''.

It was also mentioned that the university mark boundaries used for classing will change this year from the traditional 33/50/60/67 to 40/50/60/70. It is not yet clear what the practical consequences of this change will be.

5. Part III

Principles of Quantum Condensed Matter Physics, Prof. Littlewood (28 replies, 8 7 10 2 1, avg=2.3)

Although this course had been advertised as being largely experimental, it had turned out to be very theoretical in nature, and most students had felt rather lost in the mathematics. Many of those attending the lectures were graduate students, and much of the course was at a level more appropriate to graduates rather than undergraduates. It was generally felt to be too ambitious to cover both theory and experiment in the time available. The lecturer had added an extra half hour to many of the lectures and had arranged an additional 2 hour session at the end of the course, which was very helpful and much appreciated.

A prior knowledge of some mathematics topics (e.g. Green's functions) which had only been covered in the non-examinable Part IB Maths course had been assumed. Other topics (e.g. contour integration) had been covered in the examinable Part IB material, but, after a two year interval, some revision of the main points would be helpful.

There was a lot of dissatisfaction with the supervisions for the course. Several of the supervisors were experimentalists, and not much at home with the more theoretical aspects of the subject.

Structure and Properties of Condensed Matter, Prof. Donald (20 replies, 0 0 6 12 2, avg=3.8)

This course was well lectured and generally well received. The equations in the handouts contained quite a few errors, though the completed handouts, with the errors corrected, were made available via the web. Also, the intention was that students fill in gaps in the handouts during lectures, which was considered to be a useful technique, but students often didn't realise at which points this needed to be done while the lecture was in progress. Complete solutions to the problems were made available via the web, but it would be helpful if numerical answers could also be provided on the examples sheet itself.

Gravitational Astrophysics and Cosmology, Prof. Fabian, Prof. Rees and Dr Hobson (45 replies, 0 1 6 25 13, avg=4.1)

This was considered a very good course, enthusiastically lectured and much enjoyed. The material presented on the overheads was different to that in the printed notes, which often made it difficult to link the two. It would be helpful if Dr Hobson could make clear at which points students should be taking their own notes to supplement the handouts. Supervisions for the course were arranged very late in the term, sometimes not until week 5. This was due to the large number (over 90) of students taking the course and the consequent difficulties in finding enough supervisors.

Particle Physics, Dr Batley (37 replies, 0 0 8 17 12, avg=4.1)

The comments on this course were generally very positive. Some of the material towards the end of the course had been covered too fast. It would help if the linkage between the typeset handouts and the lecture overheads could be tightened.

Physics of Earth as a Planet, Dr Priestley and Dr Haines (10 replies, 0 1 4 4 1, avg=3.5)

Most students had found this an interesting and enjoyable course. The combination of supervisions, examples classes and practical classes had worked well, though it had also proved very time-consuming. Many sections of the course were ``pictorial'' in nature, consisting of complex diagrams with little or no explanatory material, which made it difficult to take coherent notes.

Theoretical Concepts in Physics, Dr Simons (20 replies, 0 1 2 7 10, avg=4.3)

A hard but enjoyable course which was very well lectured. There were sometimes problems with legibility (distinguishing mu's from nu's; unidentified squiggly lines). It would be helpful if the answers given out to the questions could include all the algebraic steps involved.

Quantum Field Theory, Dr Drummond (9 replies, 0 1 7 1 0, avg=3.0)

A very mathematical course with almost no physical explanation. The first four lectures were hard going, but the course then continued at a more reasonable level.

Structure and Evolution of Stars, Prof. Pringle and Dr Tout (4 replies, 0 1 2 1 0, avg=3.0)

Both the lecturers for this course had been excellent, and students had enjoyed the material. The mathematics was not too arduous and plenty of physical explanation had been given. It complemented the GAC Major Option very well.

Themes of Cavendish Research, Dr Phillips and others (9 replies, 0 0 4 3 2, avg=3.8)

The attendance at these lectures had been poor, but they were very well received and felt to be useful. Regular advertising throughout the term would probably help, as would a later time slot. (The lectures this term were on Tuesday at 10:00, before any of the other Part III lectures).

General Comments

Supervisions: most students felt that only having three supervisions in large groups was not sufficient to cover the material adequately. Even with the present supervising load, however, there is a problem in finding a sufficient number of supervisors within the department. It had also been hoped that, by Part III, the amount of formal supervision could be reduced compared to earlier years.

Projects: many Part III projects were allocated before the project deadline, and in some cases even ahead of the advertised meeting time with the project supervisor. The system adopted by the HEP group, whereby the various project supervisors had met to discuss and coordinate project allocation had worked well, and it was suggested that other research groups might consider this. Also, a new feature this year was the submission of two unassessed progress reports at intervals during the project, but many students were unsure of the intended format of these reports.

Library access: it is very difficult to access the Rayleigh library during evenings and weekends. Many of the recommended books for Part III are not available in College libraries, and Part II students doing Literature Reviews need access to the physics journals. It was asked whether swipe cards could be issued to all Part II and Part III students. This will be investigated, but laboratory security and unauthorised access is an important issue and it was not clear that this would be possible.

Canteen: the choice of vegetarian meals on offer in the Cavendish canteen is rather limited, and prices are generally high compared to typical prices in Colleges. It was pointed out however that the laboratory already makes no profit from the canteen. One possibility might be to make a sandwich bar available at one end of the practical classes area, and this suggestion met with a favourable response.

6. Part II

Solid State Physics II, Dr Smith (70 replies, 2 19 41 8 0, avg=2.8)

The handout for this course was felt to be somewhat disjointed, with too many equations and insufficient explanation of the physics. Solving the examples mainly involved jumping around the handout trying to find a suitable formula. Numerical answers to the examples would be very helpful. Only one of the two overhead projectors had been used in lectures, and overheads were often removed before students had had time to absorb their content and take notes. There was confusion over the definitions of chemical potential and Fermi energy (as last year, where it had led to problems in the exam). The lecturer had been very helpful in trying to sort out any difficulties students were having however.

Thermal and Statistical Physics, Dr Julian (71 replies, 0 0 2 31 38, avg=4.5)

This was an excellent course, and was extremely well recieved. Students liked having to take notes in lectures as it aided concentration, and the material had been covered at the right pace and level.

Quantum Mechanics II, Dr Ward (69 replies, 0 2 30 31 6, avg=3.6)

This course was fairly well received and contained interesting material. Some of the material had been covered too quickly; three lectures on atomic physics had been added to the course this year, but probably not enough other material had been removed by way of compensation. The typeset handout was very useful. The examples sheet was generally considered to be too long.

Relativity and Electrodynamics, Dr Alexander (69 replies, 1 2 29 26 11, avg=3.6)

The course contained interesting, though somewhat dry, material which had been explained clearly and covered at the right pace and level. The worked examples in the lectures were very useful. There were too many questions on the examples sheet, all of which were generally considered to be quite difficult.

Computational Physics, Dr Alexander (66 replies, 0 13 36 15 2, avg=3.1)

The handouts for this course were very good, though the lectures themselves did not add much to them. It was suggested that it might be better to have fewer lectures and more ``hands-on'' time. The computer projects were a big jump up from the lecture material. The demonstrators were very good and very helpful. They were usually relatively underemployed during the earlier practical sessions, but in great demand by the end of term, and it might be worthwhile to consider a scheme whereby the demonstrator time available was concentrated more towards the period just before the project deadline.

TP1, Dr Terentjev and Dr Gull (37 replies, 0 6 7 15 9, avg=3.7)

The feedback for this course was very positive. It was considered to be hard and fast, but very interesting. Dr Terentjev was an excellent and enthusiastic lecturer, but students had to take notes very quickly during lectures, leaving little time to concentrate on what the lecturer was saying. It was suggested that the note-taking load could be reduced by making greater use of handouts. It was also asked whether the number of examples classes could be increased, but this was constrained by the need to be fair to those taking the E1 option by providing a similar level of help.

Experiment E1, Dr Scott and others (30 replies, 0 1 16 10 3, avg=3.5)

Most of the experiments had been found to be interesting and well demonstrated. A typical reaction was that the Part II practicals were much less stressful than those in Parts IA and IB.

General Comments

Further work: although, according to the Physics Handbook, the decision on the choice of further work need not be made until after the TP1 results are released in the Lent Term, students were actually asked to sign up already this term. Students getting a poor TP1 result can in fact take most experiments towards the end of the Lent Term in Experiment E2b. This probably needs to be explained more fully in the Handbook.

Supervisions: there were a large number of complaints about the quality of supervision, mainly connected with supervisors whose English was poor, and with a few individuals who had also received unfavourable comments last year.

Language option: it was asked whether it might be possible to provide language options in physics, along the lines of those already on offer to engineers and chemists. A straw poll of those at the meeting indicated that this could be a popular option. It is already possible to obtain summer placements abroad, and to have these count towards further work, but this is not actually organised by the physics department. A list of places known to be willing to take on such placements exists within the department and could perhaps be made more easily available.

7. Part IB Advanced

Dynamics, Dr Mackay (68 replies, 0 7 10 41 10, avg=3.8)

This was an enjoyable and well lectured course, with a good lecturing style. The extra coverage of normal modes was useful, but was at the expense of later material (especially elasticity and orbits) which were covered much too quickly. The handouts were good and clear but were not enough on their own. The notes taken from the blackboard in lectures were not always very coherent. The recommended textbook (Hind and Finch) was pitched at too high a level and was considered by students and supervisors alike to be not very good and lacking rigour. The web site for the course was very useful.

Experimental Methods, Dr Saunders (67 replies, 0 3 20 33 11, avg=3.8)

The lecturer did an excellent job of presenting rather dry material in a clear and interesting manner. It was suggested that the material on error analysis could be moved forward to the start of the course as it is very useful for the practicals.

Waves, Dr Allison (83 replies, 0 5 25 47 6, avg=3.7)

This course was very well received. There were sometimes difficulties in linking the material on the overheads to that in the printed handouts. The course followed on well from the Part IA Oscillations and Waves course.

Mathematical Concepts in Physics, Dr Withington (19 replies, 0 3 8 8 0, avg=3.3)

There were no particular problems reported with this course. The material was slightly rushed in places, but had been well lectured. The lecture handouts had been found useful even by those Part IB students not actually attending the lecture course.

Practical Classes, Dr Saunders (60 replies, 1 7 31 21 0, avg=3.2)

The practicals were generally too long, especially those on ``clicks'' and hysteresis. If anything went wrong during the practical, it was very difficult to catch up in the time available. It was suggested that it would be useful to include a time-guide for each section in the lab manual. The demonstrator quality was very variable, with some excellent but others seeming not to be very familiar with the practical and even giving wrong advice. There was dissatisfaction with the consistency of the demonstrator marking, with students who had worked together on a practical and produced similar work getting different marks for no apparent reason. Some demonstrators were regarded as being more likely to mark more leniently.

General Comments

Examples classes: students had been told that material for the examples classes would appear a week or so ahead of the time of the class, but this had not happened for either of the two classes held to date.

8. Part IB

Waves and Imaging Instruments, Dr Buscher (3 replies, 0 0 1 1 1, avg=4.0)

(The student representative for this course was not at the meeting, but the course was reported as having been well lectured and positively received.)

Practical Classes, Dr Bleloch (3 replies, 0 0 2 1 0, avg=3.3)

9. Part IA

Foundations of Classical and Statistical Physics (course A), Prof. Longair (101 replies, 4 6 32 48 11, avg=3.6)

This was a very well lectured course, and the lecturer's enthusiasm was much appreciated. Some students felt that it was difficult to pick out the key results from the lecture notes and that highlighting or occasional summaries would be useful. The material on kinetic theory and thermodynamics was covered quite quickly. Too much mathematics was sometimes assumed for those who had only taken single maths at `A'-level, but the mathematics handout was very helpful.

There were a large number of misprints in the questions book, which had arisen following a major review and re-typesetting of the examples. The questions were considered to be on the hard side, but very good in helping understanding of the lecture material.

Foundations of Classical and Statistical Physics (course B), Dr Waldram (116 replies, 0 15 49 44 8, avg=3.4)

This course was well received, and no particular problems were encountered in the lectures. As noted above, there were a large number of errors in the examples book.

Practical Classes, Dr White (213 replies, 4 25 97 82 5, avg=3.3)

The efforts and enthusiasm of Dr White were much appreciated. The demonstrators were generally very conscientious and helpful, though there were some complaints about demonstrators whose English was poor. The gyroscope practical was very good and helped the understanding of the lecture material. The biggest problem was the length of the practicals and the difficulty of completing the work in the time available. There was little or no time to think about what one was doing, or for tasks such as the proper computation of errors. Some of the practicals involved too much number crunching. The briefings at the start of each practical were very good, but often much too long (up to 45 minutes) which exacerbated the time problems and was unfair to students who happened to be in a class with a long briefing. It was suggested that the briefings be restricted to about 15 minutes at most. Understanding the treatment of errors was a problem, as there is now often no statistics taught at A-level. It would be better if the material on errors were presented in a separate lecture, for example, rather than at the briefing in the first practical session.

10. Any Other Business

It was suggested that a box be added to the questionnaires to allow feedback on the examples sheet for each lecture course.

11. Next Meeting

The next Consultative Committee meeting will be on Thursday 15th March 2001 at 09:30 in the Committee Room.

JRB, 4th January 2001