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Studying Physics in Germany

Physics searches for laws underlying the natural processes on earth and in the cosmos.
An article by Daniel Kastner. Cooperation from: Gabriele Meister

Studying Physics in Germany
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That is what it’s about

From batteries to cell phones, from wind turbines to touch screens, from gravity to magnetism: Many everyday objects and phenomena are based on laws that physics has recognised and made usable. It investigates the behaviour of the smallest elementary particles or the traces of the Big Bang in the universe, but also deals with quantum computers and lasers. The smallest part is related to the big picture - for example, when a previously unknown ghost particle suddenly appears in the particle accelerator or when the kilogram is redefined as the exact number of atoms in a silicon sphere. "To understand the laws of nature that operate around us, physicists draw on both theory and practice. In the laboratory they do experiments and measurements, at their desks they try to put ideas and mathematical concepts down on paper in such a way that they can be used to describe and explain reality," says Klaus Mecke, physics professor at the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg and spokesman for the conference of physics departments.

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This is how the course runs

In the first three to four semesters, the areas of mathematics, experimental physics and theoretical physics are treated approximately equally. Maths is the tool of physics. The syllabus includes analysis and linear algebra. Experimental physics initially focuses on mechanics, the theory of heat, electrodynamics and optics followed later on by quantum physics, atomic and molecular physics as well as solid-state, nuclear and particle physics. As a rule, you also must choose a minor subject, but this only takes up a small amount of time. Many choose mathematics or computer science. In the lab, students learn how to handle measuring instruments and perform experiments. In the lectures, many experiments are presented, for example about gravitational balance or the damped pendulum. One or two semesters later, students learn the relevant theories in theoretical physics, for example in classical mechanics, electrodynamics, thermodynamics, statistical physics and quantum mechanics. "Some students complain at first that experiments seem unfounded, but once you master the theories, everything becomes clearer over time," Mecke says. Students learn to describe phenomena mathematically, to calculate models and to justify laws of nature. The Bachelor's degree is similar at most universities, with specialisation following in the Master's, which many opt for. Prospective teachers are more involved with experimental physics. They learn to explain basics such as Newton's theory of motion or the laws of optics.

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Typical questions raised within the subject

  • How is light refracted when it passes through an optical lens?
  • What are space and time?
  • How do atoms of antimatter behave?
  • Why are some metals magnetic and others not?
  • Why does disorder always grow?
  • How are quanta used in technology?
  • How can properties of black holes and gravitational waves be fathomed?

The subject suits you,...

... you enjoy getting to the bottom of things - and have stamina. "Physics is not just about learning facts and formulas," says Klaus Mecke. It is more important to train independent and logical thinking. "This takes patience; students may work on some practice assignments for several hours. Sometimes you wont find a solution at all." Especially in the beginning, it is important to motivate yourself and persevere. Lectures must be followed up thoroughly. "It's easier after the first few semesters," Mecke says.

Is there a numerus clausus?

The vast majority of degree courses have no admission restrictions.

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