A Level Physics Course

A level Physics at Ashbourne is an exciting and challenging subject taught in small groups which allows for plenty of individual attention.


Why study A level Physics?

In medicine you may understand things like: ultrasonic analysis, nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and osmosis, among many others. Why we sweat can be understood through heat transfer and vapour pressure.
 In engineering the applications are infinite and include such topics as: materials, vibrations, stresses and elasticity, transfer of electrical energy and energy generally. Carbon dating, which is related to nuclear physics and radioactivity, is applied in archaeology, geology and geography.
 In music you might apply principles of acoustics, harmonic analysis and digital technology.
 In biology and chemistry you use the concept of conservation of energy and potential energy to explain why reactions proceed, how energy is stored and transformed from one form to another, and the origin of atomic spectra.
 If you are interested in environmental issues a good understanding of physics will help you understand the greenhouse effect and also the limitations of physics in understanding phenomena as complex as weather systems and as ‘simple’ as the turbulence produced when air flows over the wings of an aircraft.

British Physics Olympiads

Ashbourne’s A level Physics students are strong contenders for the British Physics Olympiads having scooped gold awards in the past. The college runs an Astrophysics club which encourages students to go far beyond the scope of the A level syllabus and helps get them prepared for this extremely tough national competition.

The British Physics Olympiad (BPhO) is annual competition run by an independent organisation within Oxford University Physics department. Budding young physicists from across the UK are invited to sit a 2 hour 45 minute paper designed to challenge their understanding and problem solving skills. Students winning any certificate in the BPhO are considered very able Physicists according to the competition organisers. The AS Challenge, set by the same group, comprises a one-hour paper devised to stimulate and challenge first-year Physics students and is a precursor for the BPhO.

Which syllabus do we follow?

Ashbourne follows the AQA specification for Physics.

What is covered in this course?

There are nine topics in this course. AS students study the first five topics and A level students study all topics including the final option.

1. Measurement and error
2. Particles and radiation
3. Waves
4. Mechanics and materials
5. Electricity
6. Mechanics and thermal physics
7. Electric, magnetic and gravitational fields
8. Nuclear physics
9. Option – Engineering physics

This is a linear course which means exams take place at the end of the final year of study.

AS level examinations: two written papers of 1hr 30, each constituting 50% of overall mark. These papers are a mixture of short and long answer questions based on topics 1–5. Paper 2 includes multiple choice questions and a section related to practical research carried out by the students.

A level examinations: three written papers of 2 hrs. Papers 1 and 2 comprise short and long answer and multiple choice questions based on topics 1–8. Paper 1 covers topics 1–5 and 6.1; paper 2 covers topics 6.2, 7 and 8. Both papers are worth 85 marks and constitute 34% of the overall mark. Paper 3 examines the practical research carried out by the students and understanding of the optional topic; it is worth 80 marks and constitutes the final 32% of the overall mark.

We begin with the most modern of physics, namely the constituents not of the atom but of the nucleus of the atom. Not stopping with that we investigate the constituents of the nucleus namely quarks. Included in this are things such as neutrinos, bosons, muons, mesons and Feynman diagrams. If you have read about the developments at CERN, after studying this topic you will have some idea of what the ‘god’ particle is: the Higgs boson.

You will also study the photoelectric effect for which Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize rather than his more famous theory of relativity. Both of these topics are interesting because they illustrate the roots of modern physics in quantum mechanics. If you have any interest at all in physics it is this theory which will fascinate and perplex you for the rest of your life. Richard Feynman said that if anyone tells you they understand quantum physics then they don’t understand quantum physics. (Feynman also is a Nobel laureate whose books are a must-read for anyone interested in physics.)

Strangely linked to these topics is the study of current electricity. The link is the electron which is the fundamental charge carrier which works for all of the electrical companies of the world but never gets paid. Although superficially not as exotic or awe inspiring as black holes or gravitational waves, this fundamemtal unit of negative charge outside the nucleus is still not fully understood. In fact Richard Feynman said that, provided you allow for travel forwards and backwards in time, it is possible to imagine that there is only one electron in the entire universe. It is easy to forget that the electron has only been around for just more than 100 years; no one yet knows how big it is; how much it weighs; nor how much energy it has. Lots to think about.

You will also study the principles and applications of classical (non quantum) mechanics, materials and waves. The first section introduces vectors and then develops knowledge and understanding of forces and energy. In the second section, materials are studied in terms of their bulk properties and tensile strength. The final section develops in-depth knowledge of the characteristics, properties and applications of waves, including refraction, diffraction, superposition and interference. In classical mechanics matter is thought of entirely as particles. In quantum mechanics it is a mysterious entanglement of a wave and a particle.

Students will carry out a series of prescribed experimental and investigative activities in order to develop their practical skills. These activities allow students to use their knowledge and understanding of Physics in planning, carrying out, analysing and evaluating their work.

Further mechanics deals with three very important topics: circular motion, simple harmonic motion and momentum. Circular motion illustrates the importance of vectors in Physics; for example, even though the moon maintains its uniform ‘march’ around the earth, it is still accelerating.

Simple harmonic motion is the study of oscillation and vibrations. From understanding the colour of the rainbow to the generation of electricity, to the operation of a mixing board in a recording studio to quantum mechanics, it is difficult to think of an area of Physics which is not touched by the phenomenons of oscillations and waves.

With the law of conservation of momentum we have a law that, it seems, will never require revising. It also illustrates the power of science: by understanding laws of nature we can harness the power of nature.

The study of thermal physics reveals the origin of another important law: conservation of energy. The study of heat, i.e. the transfer of energy between two points because of a difference in temperature, confirms the theory of the atomic nature of matter and marks the beginning of the application of probability to Science. This application of probability reaches its peak in quantum mechanics.
The study of electric, magnetic and gravitational fields reinforces the importance of vectors in Physics as well as introducing the wonderful idea of electromagnetic induction. You could say that the foundation of our civilisation rests on our ability to produce electricity without a battery.

The final topic of nuclear physics deals with perhaps the most important and startling consequence of Einstein’s theory, namely E=mc2. This simple elegant equation has already provided for a huge part of our energy needs and may in future provide for all of them.

Who teaches this course?

Mike Kirby

BSc Applied Science – Aerospace, (University of Toronto); MA Statistics, (Birkbeck, University of London)

Mike has many years of experience but is as much interested in wild flowers as grains of sand.

Chella Nathan

BSc Physics, Pure Mathematics and Statistics (University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka); MSc Mathematics (The Open University); PGCE (University of Greenwich); BEng (Hons) Electronics and Communication (University of North London)

Chella has been teaching Mathematics and Physics for many years. His research interests are number theory and the development of renewable energy sources.

Reading and resources

Nelkon and Parker, A level Physics 
This is an ancient text which will provide a student with dry, but comprehensive, treatments of all topics on the A level syllabus and beyond.
Roger Muncaster, A level Physics
This is the text we use and, although not brilliant, offers a useful and workmanlike approach with lots and lots of questions.
John Gribbin 
You may choose almost any of his books, which popularise Physics in particular, and science in general. Excellent.
Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe

An outstanding introduction to (post) modern physics. Don’t be put off if you don’t understand much but indulge yourself in this fascinating exposition of the ultimate mystery of the universe.
Richard Feynmann, The Feynmann Lectures on Physics

This is a ‘must’ for anyone who is truly passionate about this subject. Challenging.
Brian Cox, Why E=mc2
A wonderfully straightforward account of Einstein’s most famous equation.
Banesh Hoffman, The Strange Story of the Quantum
There are many excellent books on quantum mechanics,the most powerful, interesting and mysterious theory ever: this is one of them.
Ashbourne final-year A level students won gold awards in the first round of the British Physics Olympiads (2019), putting them in the top 100, while the first year students scooped awards in the AS Challenge.

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