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PHYS 2080 - Physics Seminar: Develop Your Topic

Search for scientific literature effectively

Develop Your Topic

1. Understand the Context

After you form a group, your team is required to present a research topic decided on your own. Here are some examples of topics:

  • What is black hole and how it is formed?
  • What are Newton's laws of force?
  • How does optical fibre work in data transmission?
  • What is the law of conservation of energy?

Brainstorming of topic keywords is a good start. An overview or summary of the topic tells you what is known, what are the important issues, and gives you ideas of which area to explore. For example, you may want to know how the black holes were formed. You then have to have some knowledge about what black holes are.  Besides Wikipedia, you can find these background information in various encyclopedias and dictionaries:

Library Resources


Other Internet Resource

2. Test the Scope

To check if the scope of your topic is suitable for your assignment and your academic level, see what kinds of books and articles from magazines and newspapers you can find in databases. If you find too much information, too little information, or scattered information without focus, refine your topic.


Identify Main Concepts and Keywords

Before testing the scope, you need to "translate" your research question to concepts and keywords to help the databases understand what you are looking for.


Your topic: "How does a transformer work?"
The main concepts are: Direct Current and Alternate Current, energy conversion, magnetization, voltage
Consider the terms that people may use to describe the concepts: DC & AC, magnetization, Eddy Current, induced e.m.f.

Databases to Test the Topic

A keyword search at the Library Catalog may look like: "transformer"

Similar use of keywords are also effective in many other databases.

3. Refine the Topic (may not be applicable to your assignment this time)

Refine your topic by choosing a focus or point of view. Often, you start with a general topic and need to narrow it down. Occasionally you may need to broaden your topic.

How to Narrow down a Topic

  • Finding subtopics - check the "Table of Contents" in books or encyclopedia articles. They may suggest ways to break down a general topic.
  • Choosing a focus - e.g., change the topic from "How does a transformer work?" to "How does a transformer work in stepping down the voltage?".

How to Broaden a Topic

  • Lifting constraints - e.g., change "How to apply Newton's first law in explaining the motion of a stone released from a certain height" to "How to apply Newton's laws in explaining the motion of a stone released from a certain height".
  • Broaden the key concepts.


  1. At this step, your goal is to reach a manageable scope that matches the requirements of your assignment in terms of length, depth, types of sources, etc.
  2. Research topic is usually phrased as a question.
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