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CC99: Minutes of meeting of Thursday 20th May 1999

Physics Consultative Committee

CC99: Minutes of meeting of Thursday 20th May 1999


Present: Ms Berry, Mr Buckley, Mr Chan, Mr Copp, Ms Deng, Mr Eldridge, Ms Farquhar, Mr Holmes, Ms Klien, Mr Patel, Mr Wilson, Prof. Longair, Dr Waldram, Dr Ward, Dr Batley, Dr Green.


1. The draft minutes of the previous meeting were approved with minor modifications.

2. Matters Arising

Gender issues: Beth Avery and others are organising a garden party to be held after the exams for all female first year physics students. The possibility of inviting back previous female students who have since pursued a career in physics is being explored.

Part II examination results: The fraction of students receiving a II.2 class or lower in the Part II NST examinations appears to be higher in physical science subjects than in biological subjects, and this issue had been raised by Prof. Longair at a recent Faculty Board meeting. The matter had been greeted sympathetically, and a request had been made that the relevant statistics for recent years be collated, at which point the matter would be reconsidered. Other departments would also be contacted to obtain more information about their classing procedures.

3. Teaching Committee Matters

Dr Waldram thanked the student representatives for their comments on the draft Teaching Handbook for Cavendish Laboratory staff, and summarised other relevant issues currently being considered by the Teaching Committee:

Part IB Physics: The working group reviewing Part IB single subject Physics had concluded that it was not feasible to integrate the course with Part IB Advanced Physics. Alternative ways to restructure the course would now be investigated.

Part II Computing: The review of the Part II Computing course was now complete and had made various proposals for improving the timetabling and other arrangements for the course. Dr Alexander will take over the running of the course next year.

Part II Practicals: Part II Practicals would be doubled-up next year to accomodate increasing demand; there would be experiments EIA and EIB running at different times during the Michaelmas Term, for example. It was pointed out that this might introduce timetabling clashes with the revised Computing course, and further discussion on this point with the working group on Computing would be desirable.

Course changesfor next year:

  • Dr Gull would be replacing Dr Lasenby as one of the lecturers for the Part III Minor Option on Clifford Algebra;
  • Dr Hobson would take over as one of the lecturers for the Part III Major Option on Gravitational Astrophysics and Cosmology;
  • The Part III course on Medical Physics would be rearranged as Dr Dendy is retiring shortly;
  • A new lecturer had been found to replace Dr Popescu for the Part III non-examinable course on The Philosophy of Classical and Quantum Physics.

4. Part IA

Fields, Relativity and Quantum Physics (course A), Dr Green (92 replies, avg=3.9)

An excellent, well lectured course attracting nothing but favourable comments.

Fields, Relativity and Quantum Physics (course B), Prof. Longair (160 replies, avg=4.3)

A highly enjoyable course, lectured with tremendous enthusiasm. Some students felt that the material at the end of the course had been slightly rushed. The non-examinable material was much appreciated, but it was not always clear precisely which material was included in this category.

Practicals, Prof. Lonzarich and others (244 replies, avg=2.7)

The average scores for the A and B courses were 2.4 and 2.9 respectively. The questionnaires evoked fewer negative comments than usual, the most common complaint being that the practicals were too long, especially those on Complex Impedance and on Polymers and Viscosity.

Many students had had difficulty interpreting the guidelines given for the Head of Class write-up. An example of what was intended would be very useful. Some experiments were felt to be more suitable than others for the HoC write-up.

5. Part IB

Physics of Electronic Devices, Prof. Ahmed (7 replies, avg=3.1)

This course was generally felt to be slightly too fast and slightly too hard. It involved the presentation of a large amount of material quite close to the exams.

6. Part IB Advanced

Quantum Mechanics I, Dr Payne (92 replies, avg=4.3)

This was felt to be the best course of the year. The material was enthusiastically and entertainingly presented (e.g.the use of elephants and giraffes to illustrate the `bra' and `ket' notation for wavefunctions). The material on spin towards the end of the course was generally considered to be hard, especially as it is presented quite close to exams. It was suggested that it would be possible to cover the Lent Term material more quickly, leaving more time in the Easter Term for angular momentum and spin. The lecturer's writing was sometimes illegible and this was a problem for material covered by the printed handouts.

Condensed Matter Physics, Prof. Friend (89 replies, avg=2.9)

The course had begun using handwritten notes taken from the OHP but had then switched to printed handouts. While this was generally felt to be an improvement per se, the course had speeded up noticeably as a result, and a lot of material, much of it quite mathematical, had been presented. Many students felt that the course was somewhat disconnected with some topics (e.g.dislocations) giving the impression of being `tacked-on'. The material on phonons (optical and acoustic modes, Umklapp processes) was generally felt to be unclear, with the underlying physics obscured by the mathematics.

General Comments

One student had complained that their mark for the Head of Class write-up had been reduced because the results obtained in the practical itself were poor, i.e.the poor practical results were being doubly penalised.

7. Part II

Examples Classes

Following their move from the Lent to the Easter Term, attendance at the Part II Examples Classes had improved markedly, reaching about 60 students for some classes. However, this had resulted in there being too few demonstrators available at many classes. One suggestion was that Part II students could be asked to sign up for the examples classes they wished to attend at the same time as thay currently sign up for Part II supervisions.

It was very helpful when examples sheets were handed out in advance of the class. This is now supposed to happen routinely for all examples classes, but in practice this procedure had not always been followed.

8. Part III

As a result of the statement made towards the end of the lecture course that a knowledge of detailed derivations would after all be expected, the examination in the Part III Minor Option on Quantum Properties of Electron Systems had been felt by students taking it to have been unfair.

It was suggested that a copy of the Periodic Table be added to the Mathematical Handbook made available in all physics examinations as questions were often set which involved a knowledge of the atomic number or other properties of various elements.

9. Survey of Part IA Physicists (Dr Green)

Dr Green presented the results of a survey (attached to these minutes) of all Part IA Physics students, aimed primarily at comparing students' course intentions at the start of their first year with their intentions at the end. Only about half of male NST students who had intended to study physics beyond the first year still intended to do so (with about 20% still to make up their minds), while for female students the fraction was even lower, about one-third. The most common reasons given for moving away from physics were (a) that the IA physics course was felt to be too hard or too mathematical, and (b) a dislike of the physics practicals.

The survey revealed that a larger fraction of male than female students had taken double-maths A-level at school, and might therefore be better prepared for the mathematical aspects of the physics course. The survey returns would be used to find out whether those students (male or female) moving away from physics had predominantly taken single-maths at A-level. Prof. Longair is preparing a ``Friendly Mathematics'' booklet to be given out to all physics students at the start of the Part IA course. This will introduce all the mathematics needed during the first year physics course in a simple and approachable manner. The possibility of sending out this booklet to students in advance of coming up to Cambridge was discussed, but there was concern that, without support from supervisors and others available, the material would seem rather daunting. Another possibility raised was for students to come up to Cambridge a week or two early for additional mathematics teaching, but the organisational problems involved would be too formidable.

A few students commented in the survey that the physics department seemed rather unfriendly or inaccessible. Steps had been taken this year to try to alleviate this by introducing tours of the department during the first physics practical of the year, but none of the three Part IA student representatives were aware of such tours actually taking place.

10. Any Other Business

The Cavendish canteen was considered by undergraduates to be relatively expensive. The salads contained a large amount of oil and this was offputting to female students especially.

The student representatives were thanked for all the work they had put in throughout the year and were presented with book tokens by way of appreciation.

11. Next Meeting

The next Consultative Committee meeting will be on Thursday 2nd December 1999 at 09:30.


JRB, 24th May 1999