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Letters | Do modern engineers need A-level physics?


I support Mark Hansford’s Comment that A-level physics should not be a prerequisite for a civil engineering degree. Let’s face it – the bits of it we do use, F=ma and Hooke’s Law for instance, are all pretty linear and easy to remember. I have yet to use any A-level optics professionally and I could have picked up the electrical skills I’ve needed via the University of Life.

The vital qualitative structural analysis skills we all use daily aren’t taught until further education, and quantitative skills (themselves possibly becoming less important) are more reliant on maths than physics. Given that I recently met a digital engineer with degree in history, it does seem to be time to extend the diversity agenda into educational background.

› John Roberts, civil director – engineering excellence group, Laing O’Rourke,

I would like to support Mark Hansford’s questioning of the need for a physics A-level as a prerequisite to attend a civil engineering degree course.

When you look at the role of almost any engineer, their prime function is of communication. Unless they can translate their ideas, concepts, designs, plans or instructions in ways that evoke total understanding and a positive reaction by their audience, all their technical brilliance is wasted.

Many serious arts degrees will provide a much better background to this end than a long list of technical subjects. Maths is of course essential, but physics probably not. If you are considering an engineering career you are most likely of a mind that intrinsically understands many concepts studied by physics.

I would rather see graduates with geography A-levels and civil engineering degrees than geography graduates seeking to become members.

› Nick Davies

I find it slightly bizarre that the editor of our magazine who in a previous Comment, refused to differentiate between engineers and other site personnel now sees himself as a person qualified not only to judge the Graduate Awards but also to comment on the educational qualifications necessary to start an engineering degree course. For my own part, having spent a lifetime living and working all over the world and having been responsible for hiring hundreds of graduates during this time, I cannot honestly say that an A-Level in geography would have carried any weight when considering a job application.

On a more positive note, failure of young people to know what they want to do and therefore the A-levels they should be sitting is, as you say, not limited to frustrated civil engineers nor is it a new phenomenon. Sixty years ago Imperial College was advertising extended degree courses for those with good A-levels in the humanities and who wanted to change to engineering or science; my brother made this change from classical scholar to very successful theoretical physicist!

› Brian Miller (F)

Thank you for your clear Comment on 19 November. Of course A-level physics is not necessary to study civil engineering - it is nice to have it, but there are strong arguments that geography is more useful. You could also argue that a foreign language is more useful, because it helps open you to understanding other cultures. I have found that a good language A-level predicts a good civil engineer, not only because it reflects an ability to work hard and systematically, but also because it leads to a broader idea of what constitutes analysis, well beyond the limited confines of mathematical techniques.

History, art, music, and English literature are all very analytical and provide similar benefits, invaluable in the broad people-orientated discipline of civil engineering.

We do not require physics A-level, and I don’t think we ever have. It is helpful for applicants to have learnt maths in a school environment, but beyond that an open and enquiring mind, and a desire to be imaginative and inventive are all we need. Much of what we as a profession have done in the past is not fit for the future, because it did not use resources sustainably, and relied on a profligate and reckless use of energy. We desperately need engineers who are prepared to think for themselves, and to think differently. A school education which encourages that is invaluable.

Ruth Haynes is right to draw attention to the large gender imbalance in physics A-level, and the measures she is developing are worthwhile in that they will help to fill a gap in our profession. But there is no need for a gender imbalance at chartered engineer level because of decisions made by girls in their mid-teens. Most of our students have come to us with a physics A-level, or its equivalent, but many do not, including many of the very best graduates.

› Paul McCombie, admissions tutor for civil engineering, deputy head of department, Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering, University of Bath, Bath BA2 7AY

I am stimulated into putting pen to paper by your editorial in which you discuss the need for A-level physics as a prerequisite for studying civil engineering (NCE 19 November).

As head of engineering at the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames during the early 1980s, I found the recruiting of civil engineering graduates impossible. I overcame the problem by recruiting young graduates (mainly female, I recollect) with very good arts degrees but also holding top grade O-levels in maths, physics and chemistry. On joining the team they were given day release to study for an HNC in civil engineering at Richmond Tertiary College.

Result: very competent and motivated civil engineers, who were also highly articulate - real bonus!

›John Clayton (F retd)


Wrong thinking will lead to wrong railway

“Thinking outside the box”, an inconvenient expression, can be more adequately termed systems thinking. Systems thinking leads to doing the right things, whereas the alternative analytical thinking - apparently the basis of many government operations and processes - often results in doing the wrong things. In attempts to correct wrong decisions, the corrective efforts just make a wrong decision even more wrong. Why, for example, when our roads are so congested with the average speed of vehiclesdropping year on year, do we continue to engineer faster vehicle speeds?

High Speed 2 (HS2) is being designed to reduce rail travel times between cities in the north and London. However without concomitant design of the rail terminals, associated roadways, below-ground facilities, etcetera HS2 will be a systemic failure. What is the estimated cost of the complete system? We are not told. It seems that at £78.5M/km the estimated unit cost of just the rail system is the highest in Europe. Is this really value for money? Can we please stop this thoroughly bad scheme and have a systemic review.

› Professor Albert Hamilton (F)


Informing the ill-informed

It is worrying the amount on uninformed comment on High Speed 2 (HS2) from your readers.

On slip coaches - Geoff Bruce is correct in describing this as “utter nonsense”, though he failed to give the full explanation. The reason that HS2 creates so much extra capacity is that the trains on HS2 are running at the same speed and stopping pattern and the removal of high speed trains from the existing lines means that the trains on those lines are at a similar speed and stopping pattern. If slip coaches were adopted, that would mean significantly more stations. Also, slip coaches went out of fashion for a good reason: they had no power. If they stopped short they blocked the line.

On capacity: numerous commentators have pointed to additional paths being made available. Every time an additional path is made available in the face of pressure from operators the resilience of the network suffers. If you run too many services on a railway, the slightest disruption will cause major delays. This is why our railways are so unreliable.

On broad gauge - Andy Cook (NCE 5 November) has completely failed to understand why Brunel’s was right at the time and wrong now. The broad gauge allowed larger boilers on steam engines which, due to limitations on the pressure that could be used, limited the speed of trains. By the third quarter of the 19th century this was no longer an issue and by then the cost of transhipment at gauge changes was crippling and legislation as introduced to ensure all new lines were standard gauge. The use of a different gauge in HS2 would prevent trains from interconnecting with the existing network making through trains to Scotland impossible.

› Nick Orman


Comparing C02 scenarios

With reference to Peter Broughton’s letter regarding Hinkley Point, it is easy to criticise individual proposals for electricity generation but thatsimply means that nothing gets built. There are objections to everything (including wind farms, tidal energy, power from waste, solar farms and the many other renewable technologies) and arguing the relative merits leads nowhere.

In the Hong Kong Engineer magazine several months ago there was an article listing how Hong Kong generates electricity at present (the percentages from coal, gas, nuclear, etcetera) together with a similar table proposing how this balance should change in future.

This exercise enables you to examine how carbon emissions would change, whether legal or desirable air quality targets would be met, the extent to which you are reliant on unreliable fuel sources, how costs would compare, what new plant would be needed and when, etcetera, and enables different strategies to be compared.

I have not seen anything comparable published in this country.

It offers the opportunity to choose the optimum combination of electricity supplies, and crucially directs the argument towards the best overall package rather than allowing individual projects to be picked off one by one by protesters.

George Tedbury (M),

Editor’s note: In January the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc) launched an online Global Calculator tool that allows users to simulate control of the world’s energy, land-use and food systems. It is designed to show how our decisions will affect climate change.

The calculator includes 24 ready-made “pathways” which show ways of limiting global warming to 2°C by 2100, while allowing for acceptable global living standards. Four of these pathways were designed by Decc, with the other 20 provided by organisations such as the International Energy Association and Mott MacDonald. As the only engineers to contribute a pathway, Mott MacDonald’s is interesting: it is pragmatic, deliverable and does not involve ripping up any rule books… but hits the 2°C target and cuts costs.

Data is comprehensive and open source. Everyone should play with it to test their assumptions at



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