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Full A-Level Maths essential for a Physics degree?

  1. Sep 5, 2008 #1
    I am currently in Yr13 & studying A-level Physics, Chemistry & History. I took AS-Level Maths but due to certain circumstances failed, but I am taking it again this year & am hoping to get a B which I should have got last year. I would have dropped History but as I started AS Maths late, a week before the Christmas holidays, I struggled throughout the year but was determined to put all my effort in. I'm going to admit, I'm not the best at Maths, but can manage most of AS Maths & will hopefully find it a lot easier the second time round. I am really interested in Physics and I know that practically all universities will not accept you without A-Level Maths unless you have ''exceptional circumstances'' (?). So I was just wondering if there is anyway around this such as taking some sort of course in uni to bring my Maths up, or a foundation year? I have spoken to current students at universities who have told me that the Maths isn't that difficult & just goes as far as integration and differentiation, which at the moment I am fine with. However, on internet threads I seem to get a different impression? I know that Maths is involved in Physics & I can't compare A-Level to university Physics, but the Maths in Physics seems fine at the moment & I'm just wondering if they're looking more for the logical reasoning?

    Any comments would be greatly appreciated. Thankyou every much in advance!
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  3. Sep 5, 2008 #2
    The level of maths in A-level physics is an absolute joke. How you can do 'advanced-level' physics without calculus is beyond me. Speaking from experience (I'll be starting my 3rd year of my physics degree at Warwick in a couple of weeks), the first year isn't particularly difficult maths wise. Your friends are right in the sense that the maths does just build upon a-level and get gradually harder, with a few new things thrown in as well. That said, you would be totally lost if you haven't completed Maths a-level. Not only would the departments be very unlikely to accept you in the first place, but if they did accept you, it'd be torture for you.

    Sorry to be the barer of bad news, but if you want to do Physics, you better get cracking with the maths! Also, I wouldn't worry about being the best at maths - I found the a-level a bit of a struggle, and I'm coping fine with it at uni. To be honest, it's just something that my friends and I just have to put up with in order to do the Physics.

    Hope I was some help :)
  4. Sep 5, 2008 #3
    Lots of departments will offer a degree programs with a foundation year. I have course mates who started the year before me, taking a foundation year, one of which had no A-levels whatsoever, the other didn't have maths A-level. They are doing just fine now, one graduated with a 2:1, and the other is progressing to his masters this year.
    I'm not sure that attempting to apply with the As level Maths, and hoping for exceptional circumstances, would be wise. I agree with Archduke that it would probably be very uncomfortable playing catchup -if you got accepted.
  5. Sep 5, 2008 #4


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    Most physics courses have a year where everyone gets up to speed. Not quite a foundation year but easing one from A-level to degree course and making sure everyone is at the same basic level to build upon. Not having a full maths A-level might limit your options as far as the university you go to and you may have to take a foundation year similar to the one Barny mentioned.
  6. Sep 6, 2008 #5
    Thanks for the comments so far guys. I thought a foundation year was going to be my only likely option, so thanks for confirming it. I'll have to start talking to some admissions people soon. The only thing is I've heard from some that a foundation year is more for older students who perhaps haven't done their A-Levels in a long long time. Is this true or will there be people in a similar situation to me? Also, does anyway know from experience if many girls do Physics at uni, as I know it's always in the press that not many do but at an open day I went to there seemed to be slightly more girls than boys in the talk. I would guess there were about 50 girls and 40 boys. Or is this because girls go to more open days than boys so it's bound to look like there's more girls?

    Thanks again! :-)
  7. Sep 6, 2008 #6


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    In my physics course there were 50 people. Five of them were female.

    As for foundation years, yes they tend to be for those out of the educational loop for a while. I think you might have misunderstood my comment. The first year 'getting up to speed' and foundation year are different. Everyone does the 'getting up to speed'.
  8. Sep 6, 2008 #7


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    If I'm not wrong practically any university which offers calc 1 would review all the essentials you need to know for first year physics courses. Sure it helps if you knew them all along but if you can't help it, just try to study in advance for Calc 1. Get the notes in advance and do the textbook problems.

    I should add that there's a number of topics in A level maths which are not going to be important in your first year physics courses, such as combinatorics and permutations. Prob & stats as well. That's all I can think of at present since I took the A levels quite some time back.
  9. Sep 6, 2008 #8
    Hmmm....I see what you mean Kurdt but I think my only way of getting in is by taking a foundation year and it's probably the easiest way for me seen as I won't have A-Level Maths. I doubt anyone would accept me :( + like Archduke & Barny said, it would be hard for me to play catch up I suppose.
    Last edited: Sep 6, 2008
  10. Sep 6, 2008 #9


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    I got a D in A-level maths and I was accepted without a foundation year. I think a D is worse than a good grade at AS-level. That was the first time I realised I probably couldn't continue not turning up to classes, not doing homeworks and still ace the exams. :redface:

    Like I've said though, top institutions might not allow you entry.
  11. Sep 6, 2008 #10
    Really? Yeah I know what you mean. I think it's a bit harsh that they're all so strict on saying we won't accept AS-Level Maths. Like you say, a good grade in AS should be enough if you try hard at uni. But hey, what do I know. Which uni did you go to by the way & how long ago? & do you know of any flexible unis that would possibly accept me? It seems no one will accept me!& the fact that I failed AS Maths probably doesn't look too promising to unis either even though I should get a B! I'm not looking to get into the very best unis like oxbridge, but I'm hoping to get BBB (possibly ABB, with the A in Physics if I do a retake) and a B in AS Maths. I would like to get into a quite decent uni, so I'm wondering if the only way I could get into a decent uni is by doing a foundation year? Rather than getting accepted as rif-raf at a not so good uni.
  12. Sep 6, 2008 #11


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    I went to Newcastle University, my first academic year starting in 2002. Unfortunately I'm not up to speed with what unis require what. Perhaps you could e-mail admissions tutors at the unis you would like to attend, explain your situation, what you hope to achieve A-level wise, what you hope to do and ask their opinion on whether you would be admitted or what you would have to do to gain admission.
  13. Sep 6, 2008 #12
    Yeah I spose that seems like a sensible thing to do! I'll have an ask around this week. Maybe talk to some of my teachers too. By the way, your D was very good considering you didn't even try that hard! Thanks for everything :)
  14. Sep 7, 2008 #13
    Kurdt's advice is spot on, email the admissions tutors of departments that tickle your fancy. Even better, if the opportunity arises go to open days and corner the admissions tutors. It can only help if an admissions tutor can put a face to an application.

    As already said, foundation years do have a higher proportion of mature students. However there are large fraction who just had a change of direction after college and lack the prerequisites to start their chosen degree.

    Women in physics are on the rise. I've been working open days with my university for 3 years now, sometimes specifically in my dpt. Every year we see a rise in the number of female applicants. Yesterday out of 8 people that asked me about physics 3 were female. In my year we began with roughly 8 out of around 80, in the current year its up to around 15 out of 90.
  15. Sep 7, 2008 #14
    Thanks for the advice too Barny. Yeah I'll definitely have a word with my teachers & ask about which unis I should target with my situation & what they think my chances are :)
  16. Sep 8, 2008 #15
    I would think long and hard about why you want to do physics. It's the most mathematical subject you could take (besides mathematics!) At University level it will be your ability in solving problems in applied mathematics that will really count, not your ability to learn a few physics facts.

    So why would you take a subject in which you are *really* struggling, especially when you are succeeding in three other subjects? Think about what might combine physics, chemistry and history. There is so much on offer that doesn't require you to be a maths wrangler. What about "forensic archaeology"?


    Or medicine? physiology? history of science? etc. etc.

    As you are taking history and chemistry you must have a good memory for facts, perhaps better than many who are doing better than you in mathematics.

    Is it fundamental physics that attracts you. Make no mistake -- you will not get to do research in that without being near the top of the class in the Mathematics Tripos at Cambridge, or equivalent.

    Failing a Maths AS level and 'maybe' getting a B 'second time' is not a good omen for success in physics, even experimental physics. So if you want to do science as a career, why not aim at something that plays to your strengths? You can always read Brian Greene to keep up with what's happening in physics...
  17. Sep 8, 2008 #16


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    Many might have said that my D in A2 level maths was not a good omen in physics either, yet I completed a masters degree in physics. there are many other reasons one could fail or not do well other than lack of mathematical ability.
  18. Sep 8, 2008 #17
    Thanks for hust killing my future mal4mac! Only joking. No, I see what you mean, you'd think I had a good memory for facts but I actually find Chemistry really hard. I did better in AS Physics than the others - Physics - B, Chemistry - C & History - C. To be honest I don't really enjoy Chemistry so I don't think medicine's for me. I don't know why but I find it hard to motivate myself in Chemistry. It's all just remembering details from my experience so far - not my cup of tea. I know you might think why am I doing History then, but I used to enjoy that sort of thing but now I've become more interested in science (+ learning about Russia bored me to death!). I'm only keeping History because I failed Maths. Saying that I think a lot comes down to the teachers. I think I'm going to enjoy History more this year because of the teach. But if I were to forget about the teachers & just think about the raw subjects - Chemistry's too confusing, too much detail & just doesn't really interest me, History - hmmm,it's just I'm more into science, whereas Physics I do find really interesting and I know as you say I could just read Brian Greene books like most ordinary non-scientists, but it's the only subject I look forward to. Why not follow your dream if it's what you really want? I put everything into Physics last year because I enjoyed it so why won't I in years to come? Yes I struggle with Maths, but I would be willing to try my very best to get to where I want to get to. I just happen to enjoy something I have to work hard for. I think maybe I kind of enjoy the challenge. I don't want to settle for something I don't find interesting and did it just because it was the easy way out.

    Alos, you would think I'd enjoy Chemistry seen as some say it's similar to Physics, but with Physics I like it more as it's more practical in the world. I can imagine some things in Physics from reality if this makes sense. Whereas in Chemisty it's on a level that I just don't get. It's more facts and details, rather than explanations and actually understanding the subject like in Physics.

    As for what I want to do in Physics, I'm not 100% sure yet, although it won't be the courses with more heavy Maths in....obviously!
  19. Sep 9, 2008 #18
    Physics is very mathematical at degree level. For me, school Physics was like reading Brian Greene with a few easy equations thrown in. University physics was less like reading Brian Greene and more like doing the hardest, and trickiest, problems in three maths A levels for many hours each day for three years (interspersed with physics classes using tricky maths in equally tricky problems). Also, exams count for everything and the exam papers are full of really tricky mathematical problems.

    An alternative might be to do history of science with physics options. Would you rather read Brian Greene and write essays six hours a day, or do dozens of mathematics problems? Would you rather hand in essays or do exams full of tough mathematical challenges? UCL seem to have interesting H of S physical science options:


    Certainly the A levels you are taking (and passing!) would seem to indicate history of science would be worth thinking about.

    As you have a good history teacher, why not ask him/her about history of science options, if this is of interest.

    My mathematics was quite shaky (though I never failed a course :-) I often found myself wishing I'd done history or English when doing my combined sciences degree (I always got As in English and really enjoyed writing essays and stories.) I got so sick of just doing maths & experiments, and not writing or reading much, that I actually started working for the student newspaper. Best time I had at Uni!

    I'm all for doing what you're interested in. But you don't seem that interested in mathematics! If so I doubt you'll like University physics. Then again, if you like the history and philosophy of the subject, you can get away from much of the mathematics. Not all, of course. But it's a lot easier, say, reading about how Maxwell used mathematics to solve physics problems than solving them yourself! (Unless you have the ability of a Maxwell!)
  20. Sep 9, 2008 #19
    Thanks for your time mal4mac & I appreciate your advice. I will have a look around what's on the web for the history of science at unis. I just briefly looked at your link to the UCL website & clicked on a few courses, but became slightly worried when I started to see the word ''philosophy''. Maybe I have a narrow mind, but whenever I see the word philosophy it makes me think of not a very good respectable subject & perhaps a subject in which some may call a doss. Not meaning to offend anyone, but do you know how respectable a course in the history/philosophy of science is? I noticed it was in the science & technology section on the website, but just wanted to clarify that it is more classed as a science in a way & not as history?
  21. Sep 10, 2008 #20
    Although there are many disreputable philosophers it's worth seeking out the good ones. Great scientists have often been philosophers as well, e.g., Descartes, Leibnitz. If you want to broaden your mind in this area I'd recommend Bryan Magee's "Confessions of a Philosopher".


    As well as an introduction to *good* philosophy it's a great autobiography. He also wrote a superb, easy to read, introduction to Karl Popper, generally regarded as the greatest modern philosopher of science. In "Confessions" he has a lot to say about his friendship with Popper. His first degree was in history and gives insight into what it's like taking history or philosophy at university.

    Did you catch "woman's hour" today? It was devoted to interviewing female physicists. One experimental physicist, live from CERN, said she was forever dismantling radios and TV sets as a child. I think that's a good indication if experimental physics may be for you. Would you rather dismantle a radio, or read a biography? Radio 4 website will have the playback.

    History of Science is a very reputable subject, it's really a specialism within history (like history of art). A professional art historian is best thought of as a historian rather than an artist, as she does similar things to other historians. So a historian of physics is best thought of as a historian rather than a physicist. But, note, a historian of art may know more *about* a wide range of art than a painter. The same goes for a historian of physics, she may know more about physics than (say) a CERN experimental physicist.

    The physics historian (probably!) doesn't do original experiments or theoretical derivations, but she looks at original scientific manuscripts and produces historical research papers, books, and the like.

    The UCL course has broader options than just history, it's about the study of science from various angles (philosophical, sociological, historical...) I would be slightly careful of the "trendier" areas, often coming under the heading of "science studies", some of which has been heavily criticised and lampooned e.g.:


    But, in spite of this, philosophy and history of science surely remains a subject of the highest importance (when done correctly!)
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