Studying in the Faculty of Physics at the University of Seville

The University of Seville has offered an undergraduate degree in Physics since 1963. The Faculty of Sciences was initially responsible for the course, with these functions being assumed by the Faculty of Physics following its establishment in 1978.

Over the years, the Faculty of Physics at the University of Seville has earned considerable renown for its teaching activities as well as the quality of the research produced in the department’s different areas.

The characteristics of these study programmes require a high level of dedication and a strong mathematical background. In return, upon graduating, students are fully prepared professionals who are well sought after in the professional world. Recent statistics show that the percentage of job placement is practically 100% within a few years of completing the degree.

Since the 2009-2010 academic year, the previous undergraduate degree in Physics has been phased out as a result of the adaptation of university qualifications to the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). The new Bachelor’s Degree in Physics has a duration of four years. The first graduates under the new qualification completed their studies in the 2012-2013 academic year.

The Faculty of Physics also offers other courses. Since the 2005-2006 academic year, the Faculty of Physics has offered the second cycle Materials Engineering degree. This qualification is currently being phased out and since 2011-2012 the equivalent qualification is the Bachelor’s Degree in Materials Engineering. Since that same year, a Double Degree in Physics and Materials Engineering has also been offered, with a duration of five years. The Faculty of Physics is also collaborating in the double degree of Chemistry-Materials Engineering and Physics-Mathematics together with the Faculties of Chemistry and Mathematics respectively.

For students who wish to further develop the skills and knowledge acquired on undergraduate courses, the Faculty of Physics currently offers two Master’s programmes: Master’s Degree in Microelectronics: Design and Applications of Micro/Nanometric Systems and Master’s Degree in Nuclear Physics. The Master’s Degree in Microelectronics is an online course, while the Nuclear Physics course is an inter-university programme offered together with the Complutense University and UAM in Madrid and the Universities of Barcelona, Granada and Salamanca. It is also involved in the Master’s Degree in Science and Technology of New Materials together with the Faculty of Chemistry and the Institute of Materials Science (CSIC).

The teaching activities of the Faculty of Physics have a clear international focus. ERASMUS exchange programmes have been established with various European universities at undergraduate level and it has signed a Master’s level double degree agreement with the University of Münster in Germany.

The range of postgraduate courses offered by the Faculty of Physics also includes the Doctoral Programme in “Physical Sciences and Technologies”, which involves participation by more than 100 lecturers and offers the possibility of dissertations in an extensive range of research areas.

A Brief History of Physics

In order to understand scientific progress over the course of history, it must be taken into account that societies develop scientific knowledge when material needs arise for which science must find a solution. Accordingly, science did not appear in history until human society had become sufficiently complex, and its evolution has consisted of advances made by each civilisation over that which preceded it. 

The earliest civilisations (Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China) developed basic notions of astronomy, mathematics and geometry around 3,000 B.C. While astronomy arose due to the need to organise agricultural work according to the different seasons, it soon began to address more complicated matters. For example, the Egyptians were able to tell the time during the night based on the movements of the stars and established a 365-day calendar year around 2,700 B.C. Early mathematicians were able to perform simple calculations (according to modern standards) and resolve practical geometric problems using first and second-degree equations relating to architecture and agricultural practices, among other areas. The problems they resolved were no small matter at the time, as is reflected by the fact that the procedures involved were often compiled in tables that were copied from generation to generation. Tables have survived until the present day with astronomical data, practical problems (how to determine the dimensions of a granary based on its capacity) and mathematical problems, e.g. sums and products of fractions, constants of transformation between units. 

The Greeks were the first to consider nature as a source of knowledge and to search for general explanations of physical phenomena. In the 6th century B.C. the Ionian school arose in Greece, which sought to explain the nature of matter. In the 5th century B.C., Empedocles of Agrigentum developed his theory of the four elements, maintaining that everything we perceive is made up of air, earth, water and fire. Shortly after, Leucippus and Democritus introduced a discrete theory based on an atomistic conception of matter. From the time of these early contributions until the death of the astronomer and mathematician Hypatia of Alexandra in 415 A.D., the activities of Greek science firstly and Hellenistic science later on (after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 A.D.) established the foundations of Western scientific tradition. During this period, for the first time in history there was not only a common scientific language (Greek), but also the possibility of exchanging ideas across large distances. For example, Archimedes of Syracuse (Sicily) maintained regular correspondence with Eratosthenes of Cyrene in Alexandra (the Nile delta) in the 3rd century B.C. Hellenistic science made numerous advances in the field of astronomy. The first prediction of a solar eclipse was made by Thales of Miletus in the 6th century B.C. In the 4th century B.C., Heraclides Ponticus proposed that the Earth rotates on its axis. In the 3rd century B.C. Aristarchus developed his heliocentric theory and Eratosthenes measured the Earth’s circumference, inventing geography in the process. In the 2nd century B.C., Seleucus of Babylon developed the first explanation of the tides and Hipparchus was the first person to measure the distance between the Earth and the Sun. Advances in geometry and optics in the 3rd century B.C. (Euclid’s Elements, Almagest by Ptolemy) led to the first works in the field of mechanics (On the Equilibrium of Planes by Archimedes in the 3rd century B.C., works by Vitruvius in the 1st century B.C.) and hydraulics (studies of compressed air by Ctesibius and of floating bodies by Archimedes in the 3rd century B.C., Hero of Alexandra in the 2nd century B.C.). Mathematics also advanced in the Hellenistic period within the existing technical limitations (the Greeks had no positional system and tended to reduce mathematical problems to geometric problems). The Greeks discovered irrational numbers and identified solutions for equations up to the fourth degree. They also used algorithms, which if taken to their limit, are infinite (determination of the volume of a cone by Democritus and the value of Pi by Archimedes). The Greeks were also the first to mention the unknown in an equation (Diophantus, third century A.D.). 

As the centuries went by, Hellenistic science lost its vitality. This was partly due to a weakening of the city-states and public authorities from the 3rd century onward. It must also be borne in mind that Hellenistic science was not an experimental science as we know it today. Observations from real life were not used to validate a scientific doctrine; they were rather announced based on preconceived ideas of nature and experiments were never carried out to refute or confirm theories. In addition, Greek science found itself being progressively isolated from society and was forgotten to a large extent when the social elite which still possessed this knowledge was displaced during the transformations which led to the High Middle Ages.

The High Middle Ages was a period of stagnation in Europe in terms of scientific knowledge, although there was certain residual scientific activity in the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire. In the 7th century the Arabs conquered the Persian Empire and a large part of the Byzantine Empire. By the early 8th century, the Muslim civilisation occupied a territory that extended from India to southern Europe and was the custodian of most of the scientific culture accumulated over previous centuries. The Muslims respected the culture of the civilisations they conquered and from the 7th century onward they began to translate all the Greek and Sanskrit texts they found into Arabic. As a result, Arabic became a language of culture and works reached Europe which had been lost (for example, the Almagest by Ptolemy previously mentioned was translated into Arabic in the 9th century from the original Greek and reached Europe in the 12th century). The Arabs also made their own contributions in the fields of astronomy, mechanics and optics. In the 10th century, Alhazen’s treatise on Optics offered the first detailed description of refraction, identifying its origin as the change in direction of light due to a change in its speed. He also presented a study of the optical system based on rays that emerge from the object and reach the image, as is the case in basic geometric optics today. The Arabs also promoted calculus and were the first to apply it to geometry. In the 9th century, Al-Khwarizmi wrote a treatise on arithmetic (Al-Jabr) that introduced the decimal positional number system (invented in India in the 6th century) and systematised the solution of equations. Meanwhile, Omar Kayyam proposed the solution to an equation using the intersection of curves. The Arabs applied a practical and rigorous approach to science, implementing observation programmes to progressively improve the precision of their observations. They compiled the first catalogue of stars and also invented the astrolabe and the sextant. The Ptolemaic system of epicycles was also promoted in the Islamic world, mainly because it was the most precise manner of describing observations.

In the 12th and 13th centuries the first universities were founded in Europe. Cultural activity, which until that time had been limited to monasteries, began to flourish in the cities. The first universities did not teach experimental sciences but rather law, philosophy, theology, etc. Scientific work continued to be limited to copies of past works, although figures began to emerge (Albertus Magnus, Roger Bacon, William of Ockham) who proposed a new way of thinking based on observation and intentionally repeating experiences (scientific experimentation) as opposed to experience as confirmation of a fact observed in nature (the basis of Greek science). Later on during the Renaissance, the emergence of trading companies created the need for mathematics applied to commercial practices. During this period, elementary mathematics adopted its current form thanks to figures such as Johannes Widmann (use of the + and - signs) and Nicolas Chuquet in the 15th century and Niccolò Tartaglia (calculation of projectile trajectories) and François Viète in the 16th century. These early mathematicians were commissioned by merchants and royalty and carried out their activity as a profession. Invention of the printing press in the 15th century and the spread of paper use in Europe enabled rapid and safe communication of ideas and new calculation methods. Prior to this, calculations were made on parchment, which was much more expensive. This meant that parchment tended to be reused to make full use of it. The form of arithmetical operations and the complexity of calculations was limited by the need to save space and partial results were not normally written down, in much the same way that the size and speed of computer memories limit the complexity of current-day calculations.

In the late 16th century, all the factors were present for the appearance of physics in its mathematical form as we know it today: a philosophical conception regarding experimental science; existence of functional mathematics; recognition of science as a profession; and technical advances in craftwork enabling manufacture of the necessary tools and laboratory devices (the first modern research laboratory was founded by Robert Boyle in 1640). Galileo established the fundamentals of modern mechanics in the late 16th and early 17th century and was the first person to apply experimental methods (studies of pendulum isochronism). From the 17th century onward, the publication of physics treatises increased significantly: Kepler proposed elliptical planetary orbits based on the observations by Tycho Brahe and published his second law (a line joining a planet and the sun sweeps out equal areas during equal intervals of time) which, rather than an apple falling from a tree, was what inspired Newton to develop his law of universal gravitation. The first scientific societies also appeared at this time (the Royal Society was founded in 1690). During the 17th and 18th centuries, rational mechanics were propounded by Newton and developed by physicists and mathematicians such as Leibniz, d’Alembert, Euler and Lagrange. Various advances led to the mathematisation of optics: In 1620 Snell announced his law of refraction; in 1662 Fermat developed his principle of least time for a ray of light; In 1675 Roemer measured the speed of light and in 1690 Huyghens proposed his wave theory of light. Studies were also carried out of gases and liquids: Boyle’s gas law was published in 1662; in the mid-17th century Pascal studied hydrostatics; and in 1737 Bernouilli studied hydrodynamics. In the late 17th century, Coulomb and Cavendish began their studies of electricity.

During the 19th century, thermodynamics were incorporated as a discipline of physics. Laplace and Lavoisier had in fact already presented a memoir on heat as early as 1780. Fourier presented his theory on heat transfer in 1822, while Carnot formulated the second principle of thermodynamics in 1824. Mayer and Joule established heat as a form of energy and Boltzmann, Maxwell and Gibbs developed the kinetic heat theory, consisting of statistics and probability studies to deduce the macroscopic laws of thermodynamics. Clausius introduced the concept of entropy as a measure of disorder. Also during this century, Oersted, Volta, Ampère and Faraday studied electrical and magnetic phenomena. These received a unified formulation with the equations by Maxwell (1864), which were corroborated by the studies of electromagnetic waves by Hertz (1886). In the late 19th century, Maxwell and Boltzmann founded statistical mechanics. The Industrial Revolution resulted in the emergence of a new approach to science. Industrial research focused on development of patents as opposed to academic research for the purpose of publication in scientific articles. The first industrial laboratories were chemical laboratories working to develop artificial colourings for the textile and photography industry. Between 1875 and 1880, Basf, Hochst, Agfa and Bayer all established research laboratories. Soon after this, physics-related industrial laboratories were also established by companies such as Eastman Kodak (1886), Standard Oil (1890), General Electric (1900, founded by Thomas Edison in 1876), and AT&T (1907).

The spectacular advances made in physics during the 19th century led many to think at the end of that century that physics had reached its limits and that from then on the work of physicists would be reduced to refining existing theories to better adjust them to the observations made. However, the first three decades of the 20th century were a truly revolutionary period for physics, resulting in what we now know today as modern physics. The two pillars of modern physics are quantum theory and special and general relativity. Quantum theory first appeared in 1900 when Max Planck invented the concept of the action quantum to formulate the law of radiation emitted by a black body. In 1905, Einstein applied the concept of the quantum or minimum quantity of energy which may be exchanged to explain the photoelectric effect. That same year, Einstein presented the theory of special relativity based on two postulates: (1) that the laws of physics are invariant in all non-accelerating frames of reference (inertial systems) and (2) that the speed of light is the same for all observers. Both the quantum and the idea of the constant speed of light went against previous schools of thought and were deemed contrary to logic at the time. Thermodynamics, which had been so successfully developed during the previous century, allowed the possibility of continuous exchange of energy. Meanwhile, the idea of the constant speed of light invalidated the Galilean transformations between inertial frames, which had formed the basis of mechanics since the 17th century. However, both Einstein’s theories were confirmed by experiments and by the mid-20th century they had become part of orthodox scientific thought. The theory of special relativity was accepted quite quickly, given that it explained experimental results already obtained. In 1915, Einstein, closely followed by Poincaré and Hilbert, proposed his theory of general relativity. As early as 1919 Eddington confirmed this theory via experiments consisting of measurements of light deflection in the sun’s gravitational field. Quantum mechanics developed somewhat more slowly, however. In 1913, Bohr proposed a quantised atomic model. In 1922, Compton explained the collisions between photons and electrons and in 1925 de Broglie was the first person to associate waves with particles (the electron) to explain the radii of electron orbits in Bohr’s atomic model. In 1925, Heisenberg established quantum mechanics using non-commuting matrices and in 1925 Schrödinger introduced the concept of wave equations. These two theories were to form the basis of quantum mechanics as we know it today.

During the rest of the 20th century, much of the work in the field of physics was concerned with extending the ambit of application of both theories and the search for a unified description of fundamental interactions in accordance with the theory propounded by Einstein. This resulted in the emergence of new disciplines such as high-energy physics, atomic and nuclear physics, solid-state physics, astrophysics and cosmology. In 1967, Steven Weinberg and Abdul Salam applied high-energy physics to achieve a unification of electromagnetism and weak nuclear interactions, and shortly after a quark model was also developed for strong nuclear interactions. Since then, various theories have been presented to unify these three interactions, although none of them have been generally accepted. Solid-state physics emerged in the 1930s as a specific area of quantum mechanics. In the early 1960s, widespread access to computers for research purposes saw it become one of the most important disciplines of physics in the second half of the 20th century, perhaps the most important of all for industrial research.

Text: Miguel Ángel Sánchez Quintanilla