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Subject Summary: Part IA Physics

The first year course (which is also available within the Mathematics Tripos Part IA option (c)) provides a foundation in physics both for those going on to further study of the subject and for those whose main interests lie elsewhere, especially for future chemists, materials scientists, and earth scientists. 

Physics is concerned with the fundamental laws which govern the behaviour of all forms of matter and therefore underlie all science. In exploring these laws, the first year course has several aims. It is designed to bridge the gap between school and university physics. It aims to consolidate school physics by providing a more logical and analytical framework for classical physics. It introduces non-classical topics such as special relativity and quantum physics which foreshadow major themes of the physics course in later years. Finally the course aims to broaden your perspective, so that you can begin to appreciate the flexibility and generality of the laws of physics, which allow us to apply them to topics ranging from the extremely remote and theoretical, such as the behaviour of matter near black holes, to matters of everyday and technical application. 

The lectures cover mechanics, relativity, oscillating systems, waves (including quantum waves) and fields. The course assumes that students will be taking Mathematics concurrently - the two physics courses in Part IB assume a knowledge only of the material covered in Mathematics A. 

Practical work forms an important part of the course, both in its own right and where practicable as an illustration of lecture material. Students attend practical classes once a fortnight, and the practical work is continuously assessed. 

Knowledge of both physics and mathematics equivalent to GCE A Level is assumed and students are recommended to have either A-2 levels in Mathematics and Physics or, provided they contain at least three units of mechanics, A-2 levels in Mathematics and Further Mathematics.

Programme Specification: Part IA Physics

The course is taught by the Department of Physics.


  1. to consolidate school physics, providing a more analytical framework for Newtonian statics and dynamics, oscillations and waves, electric circuits, and gravitational and electromagnetic fields, and to introduce new themes, including special relativity and quantum mechanics;
  2. to bridge the gap between school and university level physics by encouraging mathematical model building and by broadening the perspective, so that students appreciate the generality of the laws of physics;
  3. to develop basic skills in the collecting and analysis of experimental data;
  4. to provide a sound foundation for later courses in physics and in other physical sciences.

Learning outcomes

At the end of the course students who should

  1. have attained a sound level in basic physics, and laid a secure foundation for NST Part IB Physics A and Physics B, and for other NST Part IB courses;
  2. have developed problem-solving skills in basic physics;
  3. have developed experimental and data analysis skills through a range of straightforward experiments in the practical laboratories;
  4. have developed communication skills in describing physical arguments and reporting the results of experiments.

Teaching and learning methods

These include lectures, supervisions and practical classes.


Assessment for this course is through

  • one unseen examination, based on lectures and some practical class material (for aims 1-2, 4 and learning outcomes 1-2);
  • continuously assessed practical work (for aims 2-4 and learning outcomes 3-4).

Courses of Preparation

Essential: A Level Physics and Mathematics, or Mathematics and Further Mathematics, including the section on Mechanics.

Useful: AS or A Level Further Mathematics. We also expect students to take the Part IA Mathematics Paper in parallel with Physics.

Additional Information

Further information is available on the Course Websites pages.