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Studying Physics in Germany

Physicists search for laws behind the natural processes on earth and in the cosmos
An article by Daniel Kastner

Studying Physics in Germany
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That is what it’s about

From the battery to the light bulb, from wind turbines to touch screens, from gravity to magnetism: Many everyday objects and phenomena are based on laws that physicists have recognized and made usable. They deal with practical things like computer chips and solar cells, light-emitting diodes and lasers. But even the behaviour of the smallest particles, the properties of matter or the traces of the big bang in the universe can be research topics for physicists. 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. "Anyone interested in physics wants to know what holds the world together," says Gert-Ludwig Ingold, a professor at the University of Augsburg and spokesman for the Conference of Physics. "One can also calculate processes that we cannot perceive with our senses or that completely contradict everyday experience, as in quantum physics."

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This is how the course runs

In the first three to four semesters, the three 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. "In the atomic environment, the rules of the game are different," says Gert-Ludwig Ingold. "Some phenomena can only be described with the help of mathematics." Experimental physics deals with mechanics, thermodynamics, electrodynamics, and optics, later with quantum physics, atomic and molecular physics, and solid-state, nuclear, and particle physics. As a rule, you also have to choose a minor subject, for example computer science or chemistry. In the lab, students learn how to handle measuring instruments and perform experiments. Likewise in the lectures, many experiments are presented, for example about gravitational balance or the damped pendulum. Theoretical physics deals with classical mechanics, electrodynamics, thermodynamics and statistical physics as well as with quantum mechanics. The students calculate numerous models, phenomena and connections. Bachelor's degree are similar in most universities, specialization takes place during the master. For prospective teachers, the focus is more on experimental physics.

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Typical questions raised within the subject

  • How is light broken when it passes through an optical lens?
  • Why can an electron move in different directions at the same time?
  • Why are some metals magnetic and others not?
  • What are optical tweezers?
  • What does the Heisenberg uncertainty principle mean?
  • How do atoms react with antimatter?
  • How can you investigate the existence of black holes?

The subject suits you,...

...if you enjoy getting to the bottom of things - and have stamina. "If you want to become a physicist, you have to be prepared to work on problems. Sometimes you need hours for the training exercises, sometimes you cannot find a solution,” says Gert-Ludwig Ingold. It is important to take the time needed. It is worth remembering, as soon as the lectures are not thoroughly prepared for and followed up and the exercises are not carried out, you run the risk of dropping behind. But persistence is worthwhile: "Those who survive the first semester are likely to succeed with the rest of their course," says Ingold.

Is there a numerus clausus?

Only less than ten percent of the courses have a numerus clausus. It is usually in the middle grade range.

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