School of Mathematics, Statistics and Physics

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Newcastle’s new generation of Physicists

This month will see the first graduating cohort of Physics undergraduates from Newcastle University in a decade.

Physics played an integral part in the foundation of Newcastle University, when the demands of the north-east industrial sector led to the set-up of the College of Physical Sciences in 1871. This, and an earlier School of Medicine and Surgery (1834), later merged to become Kings College of Durham University. This evolved into Newcastle University, formalised through an act of parliament in 1963.  

Newcastle University was particularly famous for its research into geophysics. Sir Harold Jeffreys discovered that the Earth’s planetary core was liquid. Later, Professor Keith Runcorn used precise magnetometers to make pioneering measurements of magnetism in rock that confirmed the existence of continental drift and plate tectonics.  

However, in 2004, Newcastle University made the decision to close the Department of Physics. The numbers of students taking physics at A’level and undergraduate level across the UK had been falling for a decade. On top of that, the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise led to a sharp decrease in the amount of research funding for physics at Newcastle.

The drastic closure of physics at Newcastle, which came alongside closures and cut-backs of physics and chemistry departments at several other UK universities, sent shock waves through the sector, and led calls to protect core science disciplines. Indeed, the government soon placed physics on a list of subjects of "national strategic importance", but this came too late for Newcastle. 

By 2011 there had been a surge of interest in physics, buoyed by ‘the Brian Cox effect’. Physics had re-entered the top ten most popular A’level subjects and undergraduate numbers surged. Physics was out of the doldrums and back at the forefront.

The motivation to restart physics at Newcastle was clear, and met with great excitement from the physicists around the University.

There was an initial investment of four academic posts and £2m for teaching laboratories and study space. Physics was launched in 2015 by theoretical physicist and best-selling author Professor Paul Davies. This first cohort comprised 39 students, exceeding all expectations, and over the past 3 years the intake has grown to 55.

The restart has offered a unique opportunity to design a modern, progressive and robust department. A culture of diversity and widening participation has been embedded from the start.

A designer portfolio of research areas is being created, balancing fundamental with applied, traditional with emerging areas, to provide the disciplinary core and the potential to tackle current and future challenges. While the physics PhD programme continued during this interim, it languished with only a handful of students. Efforts are now underway to grow this programme significantly, and an MRes in Physics, to commence in September, will further boost the postgraduate opportunities.

Learning lessons from the past, this growth will continue over the next decade to ensure the critical mass to weather future storms.

Of the 39 students who took the chance to study in this first physics cohort, seventeen will graduate this month with their Bachelors degrees (the remaining students will continue on the four year MPhys programme). For them this momentous occasion marks the culmination of their three year journey of intellectual discovery, personal achievement and the start of a variety of new adventures.  

Victoria Atkinson, who started her physics studies with a degree in French under her belt, is now hooked on physics: "I have a place on the Diamond Science and Technology CDT at Warwick University. After completing the Masters year, I will be starting a PhD back at Newcastle. I've really enjoyed the course here at Newcastle".   

Josh Larue (pictured), from the Seychelles, won a government scholarship to study physics at Newcastle. “Moving to the UK was a bit of a culture shock (especially the weather), but living in Newcastle has been a fantastic experience. Physics is a brilliant network of professors and students who have been supportive to me both in and out of academic life.” Josh will return to the Seychelles and put his Physics degree to work “I plan to work via government sponsorship in civil engineering, or potentially turning my hand to the financial sector. I also want to return to Newcastle in the upcoming years and resume study as a postgraduate.”  

We thank Josh, Victoria and their fifteen course mates for choosing Newcastle and wish them great success in their next adventures.

A version of this article was first published in Physics World. You can view the original article here.

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Student working with Physics equipment

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