Senior Physics Challenge
Pouring rain and thunderous stormy skies is weather you would not typically associate with the end of June and certainly not weather that I wanted to be walking through when I arrived for the recent Senior Physics Challenge in Cambridge!
A week-long residential summer school for 65 students from around the UK held annually at the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge, the Senior Physics Challenge aims to introduce students to studying physics at university by giving them a realistic experience of what life as an undergraduate student at Cambridge is like. Along with 5 other like-minded prospective physicists, I was lucky enough to be staying in the beautiful Corpus Christi College near the centre of Cambridge which we later discovered meant a half-hour walk each way to get to the Cavendish where all our lectures were! Other groups of students were distributed amongst several other Cambridge Colleges.
Our challenge for the first evening was Fermi-style estimation – answering questions with a limited amount of given information using approximate values of real world quantities. Answering the questions required dimensional analysis and knowledge of exponentials and logarithms, as well as a whole host of physical laws such as Newton’s theory of gravitation, optics and thermodynamics. Questions included ‘How hot is the surface of the sun?’ and ‘How much do you need to magnify Proxima Centauri by to see it during the daytime?’
Each morning began with a lecture on Classical Mechanics. The basic concepts were not much more complicated than what we had done previously in school maths lessons; however, the application of the theory was a little different and the problems required careful consideration to reach the correct answer. Our next daily session was a lecture on Quantum Mechanics – a topic normally seen in the second year of the Cambridge Natural Science course. For me, this was the most interesting part of the week, especially considering that we were plunged straight into the deep end! We looked at infinite and finite square wells, the Schrödinger Equation, the Uncertainty Principle and calculated the Bohr Radius.
The week wasn’t entirely theoretical however and involved three lab sessions in the undergraduate laboratories with practical experiments involving pendulums, lasers and light bulbs. The experiments focused on the theory we had learnt in our AS physics course and involved using diffraction from double slits to calculate wavelengths of light and working out the acceleration due to gravity using circular pendulums.
People might be forgiven for thinking that studying at Cambridge is all work and no play; however, there were many opportunities to socialise in our schedule. A lecture on ‘popular physics’ turned out to be about the mechanics of juggling and was enjoyed by all, whereas a trip punting on the Cam offered everyone the chance to see the beautiful and historic city from a unique angle. We also had the opportunity to attend an Admissions Q & A session which turned out to be both useful and informative.
The course gave me the unique chance to experience what studying physics is like and a brilliant insight into how undergraduate study is taught at Cambridge. I was extremely fortunate to have been selected for such a wonderful week of study, friendships and residency at Corpus and appreciated every moment. I would like to thank the Physics Department and Mr Brunker for allowing me to pursue this gem of an opportunity.
Charlie Jonas, July 2014