Natural Sciences -- Phys


The Natural Sciences Tripos is a great way continue to study a wide range of sciences before continuing in depth in later years.  This allows students to ‘try before they buy’ and experience what a university level chemistry course or physics is actually like.

The Physical Science courses are radically different from A-Level courses and normally require a lot more mathematical fluency.  This often comes as a shock to most students at whatever University they study.  Sometimes they realize that what they thought they enjoyed the most was Physics, but with the extra mathematical fluency required they are instead drawn to the more qualitative aspects of Earth Sciences or Organic Chemistry.  Conversely the lack of such mathematics at school-level might have meant that the joys of Physics, Physical Chemistry or Materials Science were occluded. The ability to sample different courses with no loss of content allows students to best choose what suits them.

Luckily the first year is specifically designed to ease this transition with a specially designed Mathematics for Physical Sciences course which gives the techniques required for all subsequent years in Materials Science and  Chemistry. For Physics an additional Second year course on mathematics is provided, although this is not just for physicists, and other subjects combine well with it.

Structure of the Course

The course in the first year (The first year of a Cambridge degree is known for historical reasons as `Part IA’) requires students to choose three "experimental" sciences from the following list:

  • Physics
  • Chemistry 
  • Materials Science
  • Geological Sciences
  • Biology of Cells
  • Evolution and Behaviour
  • Physiology of Organisms

(The biological options are described on the NatSci:Bio page).

All students doing at least one of the first four options are required to also do Mathematics for Physical sciences.

The only exception to this is students who are doing Chemistry but are resolute in their mind that they will not proceed to Chemistry in any further years.  Such students are then required (like all other Natural Sciences students who do not take Mathematics for Physical Sciences) to instead take Mathematical Biology.

To reiterate, in the first year (IA) three Sciences plus one of the two mathematics courses.

The IA Physical Courses in detail


The first four weeks are spent putting Calculus and Vectors back into the Mechanics that you already know, and making sure that you are comfortable with the more streamlined notation, and the new style of `descriptive’ questions.

The following terms take you through damped simple harmonic motion described using complex numbers and differential equations, wave and optics (again using differential equations, complex numbers and vectors), A very basic introduction to Special Relativity and Quantum Mechanics, and electromagnetism described with, you guessed it, differential equations and vectors.

IA Physical Course details


It will seem like we cover the entire further maths syllabus in two weeks.  This is slightly unfair, it will take us about five, and so having done further maths is but a fleeting advantage, and is why it normally will not disadvantage a student not to have taken it. Maths will seem like the most demanding course in IA, as we have to give you all the tools necessary for the remaining four years. Only for physics is this not possible, and so physicists in the second year are strongly advised to take the (non-compulsory) maths course in the second year.

In the gap between A-level results and arriving at college, it is strongly advised to brush up on maths, especially vectors and complex numbers if you have done them.  The full IA mathematics syllabus.

Materials Science


Earth Sciences


In the Second year (called Part IB)

Students may then choose any three subjects from 

  • Physics (A)
  • Physics (B)
  • Chemistry (A)
  • Chemistry (B)
  • Earth Sciences (A)
  • Earth Sciences (B)
  • Materials Science
  • Mathematics
  • History and Philosophy of Science
  • Ecology
  • Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
  • Pathology
  • Neurobiology
  • Plant and microbial Sciences

Further details on 2nd year choices

Note that contrary to Part IA (the first year) mathematics is not required, and will use up one of your three options.

BE AWARE that choices made in the very first week in the very first year open up and preclude choices.  Thus if you do not choose Chemistry in IA, you will be ineligible to pursue it in IB. The various pathways are described in the subject pages linked above. 

In the Third year (Called Part II)

Frther options which, again, depend on the choices made in Part IB (and hence in IA)

Thus the flexibility of the Natural Sciences Course, while extensive, is not actually as great as it looks on first glance. We thus spend a great deal of time in the week leading up to the start of lectures giving guidance and advice to new students as to what courses best suit them. This is from both the perspective of both the staff and, much more valuably, from current students.

Natural Sciences is a very broad programme. In the 1st year, students study three experimental science subjects and one mathematics-based course. Most people opt to take what can broadly be called either biological sciences, or physical sciences. In Part IA (year 1), those more interested in the physical sciences might choose:

  • purely physical - three from Physics, Chemistry, Earth Sciences, or Materials Science
  • physical/biological - combining two physical subjects and a biological option

A Level (or equivalent) Mathematics and the Part IA Mathematics of the NST are essential for some physical sciences subjects.

In the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th year Homerton has dedicated Fellows and Directors of Study in the vast range of sciences available for students to develop their special interests.

  • Chemistry: Dr Jo Haywood
  • Earth Sciences: Dr Penny Barton
  • Physics and Material Sciences: Dr Sherry Huang, Dr Sohini Kar-Naryan
  • Biological Subjects: Dr Paul Elliott, Dr Julia Kenyon
  • History and Philosophy of Science: Dr Melanie Keene

Physical Sciences at Homerton benefits greatly from the relatively large size of the cohort, which means that, even in later years, you will not feel isolated as it is unlikely that you are the only student in college doing your course. The ability to discuss your work with fellow students is a great boon, and we try to encourage group work whenever possible (with the obvious exception of assessed work).

The teaching for the first two years is provided by Fellows and Bye-fellows of the college, with additional support from PhD. candidates who are often researching material related to the fundamentals taught in the foundation course.  Our teaching is of a very high standard, and in the four years since the Cambridge University Student Union run Teaching Excellence awards have been running, Homerton has won the Outstanding Supervisor award twice and a commendation for excellence in Supervising once. We are trying very hard to continue this run of success!

Director Of Studies:

Fellows associated with subject:

Natural Sciences is not formally split into Biological and Physical Sciences, and it is perfectly possible to study any combination in IA, but for the purpose of balanced admissions we seek to admit roughly (only roughly) equal numbers of students with those broad inclinations.  If however we see more outstanding candidates on one side than the other, we are not going to rigidly stick to a number.

For qualifications we normally require the standard A*A*A at A-level or equivalent, in three subjects, one of which MUST be Mathematics for the Physical Sciences, and at least one must be a science A-Level.  Most successful applicants apply with three Science/Maths A levels or the equivalent. Further Maths is always a good idea, but admissions will never be adversely affected for students who were not able to take it, due to reasons such as (but by no means limited to) the school not offering it, or timetable clashes with a subject for which you had more of a passion.


We will normally ask candidates who are considered for interview to attend two 20 minute interviews both of which will be on academic topics. We therefore request that applicants give a vague indication of their preferences for IA.  This is so that a person with no intention of taking physics in IA is not asked physics questions.  This choice is not meant not be binding, and is meant to make sure we see you at your best. 

The interview itself is best seen as a practice Supervision (the name for the tutorials which the teaching takes place). We are interested in students who can take knowledge in quickly and then run with it, under guidance, not just what you have absorbed so far.  We are aware that different exam boards teach different topics at different times, and are not trying to trip you up. Instead we are  trying to see how you think. The best practice is just to spend time thinking over the various principles you have encountered so far, and see how they might be linked together or expanded into new domains.


If you are admitted to study Physical Natural Sciences, you will be invited to come up to Homerton a few days earlier than most other first years, for a Pre-Sessional course in Mathematics.  This is not compulsory, and will not cover any material that is not in the main course (Mathematics for Physical Science), but will give a taster of what is to come, and how the style of questions is radically different to the much more structured A-Level material. The course is currently run by Bob Dillon, the  IA Natural Science (Physical) Director of Studies, and also the Supervisor for Physics and Mathematics for Physical Sciences at Homerton.

Applicants for Natural Sciences will take a pre-interview written assessment in their schools or colleges in the year of application. For further information on the registration deadline and date of the assessment, please have a look here.  Please also visit the Cambridge pre-interview assessment dates and costs page for full details. Further information about the format and content for this assessment is available in the online Prospectus.

If you are interested in coming to visit Homerton at any time, please e-mail Dr Paul Elliott, the Scientific Admissions Tutor, at Paul can arrange for you to chat to one of our Directors of Studies when you visit, and arrange for tours of the college.