So Long and Thanks for all the Physics!

Now that we have reached the end of our four years at Cardiff University’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, we are going on to do bigger and better things. This does not mean that what we have just done was boring, small and inconsequential. In fact, it was quite the opposite.

When starting out as an undergraduate, you don’t really grasp the significance of what you’re about to undertake. As one of our fellow students aptly stated, a physics degree is “2500 years of genius condensed into a four year course”. That’s a lot of genius, and a lot of physics to absorb in only a handful of years. This was a task not to be taken on by faint hearted.

Throughout the degree we met some of the founding scientists of modern physics, including Marie Curie, Paul Dirac, Albert Einstein and James Clerk Maxwell, and learned only a small percentage of the physics that these people accomplished. Their powerful insights into the workings of the world around us lead to some of the most fundamental developments in scientific history. They have provided us with the tools and techniques that have created almost all of the technology that we take for granted every day. These scientists not only shaped our degree, but also our daily lives, and we thank them for that.

I asked some of my fellow students what they most enjoyed about their four years here at the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and there was an unrivalled winner: project work. It’s all well and good to learn science in the classroom, to study the theory and the history behind it. However, what we all really appreciated was the project; being able to work on some real science and apply what we had learned in lectures. It was the sort of science that doesn’t go according to plan, hardly provides any significant results, and is very unpredictable. Yet, at the same time it is also exciting, thoroughly enjoyable and very rewarding. Throughout the entire final year we were able to apply our own insights and ideas to physics that was being studied. We were able to build experiments tailored to our interests, test our theories, and gain a deeper understanding of the scientific method.

Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity was another popular choice. Many of us had waited three years to finally study this module. It was one of those modules where very little makes a sense in the beginning, but by the end just before the exams, many of us had our own mini “Eureka!” moments when understanding finally dawned. By following Einstein’s footsteps down his own path of discovery, we learned how the properties of space-time were closely interlinked with those of matter: how matter tells space-time to curve, and how space-time tells matter to move.

Outside of the course, we all enjoyed the weekly colloquiums organised by Robbie Auld. These gave us a chance to listen to some researchers who are experts in their field, and then fire questions at them. It was often amusing to hear some of the in-house lecturers give visiting speakers a hard time!

What will we take away from our four years of hard slog through the 2500 years of genius? We will not only take away an incredible amount of physics, but also a way of thinking. Science is not just a subject, it is a way of doing; think of science as a verb, rather than a noun. It teaches you to think methodically, to establish a rational and realistic view of how the world works. This scientific method can be applied to all walks of life, whether it be research, teaching or even politics.

Many of our group are going on to quench their thirst for knowledge by studying for a PhD, some of us are going into more commercial routes of research, some of us are leaving science all together, and the rest haven’t decided yet. Maybe some of us will become Nobel Laureates, and some could be the next generation of influential politicians, but whatever routes we decide to take in life, we all know that we will succeed, no matter what. Studying physics has given us the confidence to tackle complex problems head-on, and find ways to overcome even the most challenging tasks that life throws our way.

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