Information Services Office   19.6.2012


Prof. Xia Keqing
Prof. Hui Pak-ming
Prof. Chu Ming-chung
Physics volunteers at the 2011 Orientation Day for Undergraduates Admissions
Newsletter No. 400 > Feature > The Department of Peter Pans: In Praise of the Beauty and Nature of Physics

The Department of Peter Pans: In Praise of the Beauty and Nature of Physics


Anatomy of an Academic Programme

The transmission of knowledge, the stimulation of thought, the promotion of research, and the creation of new knowledge are the core missions of universities as seats of higher learning. And, of all these mandates, the transmission of knowledge ranks as the most important, and the academic programme is its vehicle.

‘I think physicists are the Peter Pans of the human race. They never grow up and they keep their curiosity,’ said Prof. Isidor Isaac Rabi (1898–1988), Nobel laureate in physics 1944. Physics lovers do share one thing—they are pure at heart and have a thirst to find out the meaning of the physical world. ‘Physics is a natural science conducted at the most fundamental level in order to understand how the universe behaves. Getting to know it gives us a sense of fulfilment and excitement. The inherent pattern of the law of physics is wonderful and fascinating,’ explained Prof. Xia Keqing, chairman of the Department of Physics, CUHK.

The scope of physics is so vast that it involves study of the tiniest elementary particles to the universe. So is there a secure path that would lead us to physics? Professor Xia said, ‘The physics programme of the Chinese University is the most comprehensive in Hong Kong. This is well-known among secondary school students, their teachers, as well as members of the public. We continue to gather feedback and adjust the curriculum. The training here is tough, but academics will try every means to make it easier for students to follow.’

Train the Mind and Not Just the Hands

The exploration of nature and how it works can broaden one’s horizon and have an impact on his/her attitude towards life. ‘If young people have a strong passion to study physics, go ahead! Physics graduates are highly analytical, excellent in problem-solving, data management and mathematical skills. If they can understand abstract concepts in physics, practical problems in the material world won’t intimidate. They’re adaptable and can handle any task at ease,’ Professor Xia commented.

Students who want to major in physics will find the University the right place for them. Many professors are involved in cutting-edge research on a wide range of subjects, e.g., theoretical physics, quantum information, quantum optics, nano-materials, turbulence and soft matter physics, strongly-correlated electron systems, ultra-cold atoms and molecules, astrophysics, and neutrino physics, etc., which give students numerous learning opportunities.

The Curriculum—Striving Towards Perfection

In the double cohort year beginning September 2012, the first students of the four-year programme and the last students of the three-year programme will enter university together, and the new 3+3+4 curriculum will be implemented. In view of that, the department is going to offer physics courses of different levels to gear to the needs of individual students. Prof. Hui Pak-ming, who is responsible for curriculum design and reform, said, ‘The existing three-year programme is good. In 2009, after the programme review, the department had a better understanding of its minor flaws, and decided to use the 50 compulsory units in the new programme to provide balanced training in physics, mathematical and experimental methods, professional and generic skills, research experience, and cultivation of professional attitude.’

Professor Hui said students will enjoy more flexibility in the four-year programme. For those who want to pursue further studies in science, they can join the enrichment stream in theoretical physics and make use of the 21 elective units to enroll in preparatory courses. For those who have other plans, they are free to choose from a large number of intermediate and higher physics courses, and elementary research modules related to the many aspects of physics. Apart from that, students can opt to take courses offered by other departments as their major electives. This can help to broaden students’ knowledge base and match with their career goals.

The department’s liberal atmosphere encourages teacher-student interactions. If students believe that there is room for improvement in certain areas, adjustments can be carried out, if possible, by the teachers without delay. The data collection and management mechanisms are well-established in the department and this was done through the organization of a number of consultation sessions, tracking of graduates who furthered their studies overseas, and the updating of alumni profiles who currently teach in local secondary schools. These data are useful for networking which contributes to the continuous quality improvement. So, it is not surprising that the physics programme is among the few programmes which received endorsement as ‘excellent’ by the University.

Fruitful Teacher-student Relationships

In the past few years, the department admitted many outstanding students. In 2011, there were 64 new undergraduates, most of whom received distinction or credit in physics and mathematics in the public examination. Prof. Chu Ming-chung, who is in charge of student affairs, said, ‘CUHK physics students are characterized by a feverish passion, the capacity to think independently, and an intrepidity to go against the grain. They were often the odd men out in secondary school. When they met each other at CUHK, they were extremely happy.’ Physics students have a reputation for being hardworking and dedicated, and these qualities are appreciated by many professors in famous institutions. ‘Caltech and CERN (“Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire”, or in English “European Organization for Nuclear Research”) contacted me and asked me to send interns again this summer. This is extraordinary!’ exclaimed Professor Chu. By the end of 2011, 92 students had completed overseas internship training, 67 chose to take up further studies, and 47 were admitted to world-renowned universities to continue PhD studies.

‘I used to think research work is difficult and only the top students can handle it. But after the Daya Bay reactor neutrino experiment, I’ve dropped that view. The project was gigantic and the team needed to take care of a lot of things. Occasionally, we must invent some strange methods to solve a problem. I remembered once that a Berkeley professor who was in charge of the project urgently wanted to know how much stress a certain piece of equipment could bear during transportation. I asked two students to come back to the laboratory. They designed and fabricated two sets of testing apparatus separately, and both of them worked very well. This is fantastic! Every student has his/her strength. As a teacher, we should encourage them to do more,’ Professor Chu said.

Lifelong Education

In recent years, about 50% of graduates pursue further studies, while others would take up positions in education, private businesses, the government and public organizations. The aims of studying physics are to train our analytical mind, improve problem-solving skills and deepen our understanding towards ourselves. Since it does not belong to any kind of pre-vocational training, it is natural that graduates have diversified career paths, which contribute to the benefit of society in different positions.

In the eyes of alumni, what matters most is not job titles, but affection towards the physics department and the students studying there. The CUHK Physics Alumni Association has been a staunch supporter in sustaining the growth of the department, and through the organization of communal activities and career talks, current students can cultivate a better understanding of their life’s goals and what to expect in future careers. The association would also award scholarships to those students who dedicate themselves to serving the community.

Prof. Richard P. Feynman (1918–1988), an icon of the Peter Pans, always says, ‘I don’t know anything.’ Some people ask him, ‘How can you live without knowing?’ His reply is, ‘I do not know what they mean. I always live without knowing. That is easy. How you get to know is what I want to know.’ What a question! Why are there sky and earth? Why is nature so beautiful? How come I was born in this space and time? Not only scientists but each of us will ask these questions, and want to know the answer.

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