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Physics | Courses | Faculty

1126 Lederle GRC Towers

Degrees: Bachelor of Science
Bachelor of Arts

Contact: Professor Rory Miskimen
Office: Lederle GRT 425
Phone: (413) 545-2480

Head of Department: Professor Donald Candela; Associate Head: Professor Monroe Rabin; Undergraduate Program Director: Professor Miskimen. Distinguished Professor Hallock. Professors Donoghue, Dubach, Goldner, Golowich, Kumar, Menon, Parsegian, Prokofiev, Svistunov, Traschen, Tuominen; Associate Professors Blaylock, Dallapiccola, Dinsmore, Willocq; Assistant Professors Achermann, Babaev, Brau, Cadonati, Davidovitch, Kawall, Pocar, Ross, Santangelo, Sorbo; Lecturers Hatch, Kastor, Papirio, Stevens.

The Field

Physics is the basic science that underlies all of the physical sciences and influences most of the biological sciences. It treats matter, energy, and interactions at the fundamental level. Its subdisciplines include acoustics, optics, mechanics, thermodynamics, atomic physics, nuclear physics, condensed-matter physics, low-temperature physics, elementary-particle physics, plasma physics, astrophysics, biophysics, geophysics, relativity and gravity, and nonlinear dynamics. Physics is a laboratory-based science. Experiments reveal the observable properties of the natural world, and theories provide an understanding of the observations. Mathematics serves as the essential language for the analysis of experiment and theory.

The work physicists do can be classified as basic or applied. The scientist doing basic research typically works in a university or national laboratory, and is interested in learning about the fundamental processes of nature. The applied physicist wants to develop uses for knowledge through technological advances, and is employed most often in an industrial setting.

Physicists usually choose to be either experimentalists or theorists. The experimenter uses apparatuses designed to test hypotheses and theories, to make unexpected discoveries of new phenomena, or to develop new applications of ideas. The theorist uses that data to develop new explanations, hypotheses, or theories. Occasionally a particularly broad scientist can act as both experimentalist and theorist. Physicists may also use the computer to simulate a physical system and generate data from observations of the simulation in order to gain new insights into real systems.

Physics is a constantly changing science with aspects which sometimes cross over into other disciplines. Often a field becomes very exciting and physicists pursue it vigorously. After the fundamental principles are established, a particular field may be given over to another discipline for further exploration. Thus, much of the physics of yesterday is now regarded as part of chemistry or engineering. It is interesting to conjecture how the physics of today may evolve in the decades to come.

The Major

The Department of Physics has the faculty and facilities to provide unusually strong programs for students wishing to major in physics. The department offers a variety of courses and tracks; many options are available at the introductory level, in the core upper-division courses, and in the advanced electives.

The three available tracks, Professional, Applied, and General, enable students to tailor the major to suit their goals. Whether the student plans to continue physics in graduate school, seek employment immediately after the B.S. degree, study other fields, or pursue other alternatives, an appropriate set of courses is available.

Courses for majors generally have low enrollments and so students are treated as individuals. The student-faculty ratio in the department is optimal; it is easy for a student to interact directly with the faculty and get extra help and advice.

Most faculty members are engaged in basic experimental or theoretical research in one of the following areas: atomic physics, condensed-matter physics, elementary-particle physics, nuclear physics, polymer physics, low-temperature physics, and nonlinear dynamics. Excellent facilities have been supplied by the university and are supported by several million dollars annually in federal research funds. This activity makes it possible to bring the frontiers of physics to the classroom and enables undergraduates to participate in original research activities. These opportunities can be found through independent study, the departmental honors program, or student employment during the summer or academic year.

The department has an active chapter of the Society of Physics Students (SPS), which allows the student to interact socially with student colleagues and faculty as well as to carry out interesting extracurricular physics activities. For example, there is a Five College Undergraduate Physics Colloquium that brings several nationally known speakers to the area each year.

PHYSICS 181-184 and 287/289 are the recommended introductory courses and labs for students considering a major in physics. (Under certain circumstances, and with approval of an adviser, PHYSICS 151-154 may be substituted for PHYSICS 181-184.)

Students intending to go on to graduate school in physics or closely related fields or simply desiring a complete set of courses in physics should follow the Professional Track. Those intending to take jobs immediately after receiving the B.S. degree, or who will go to graduate school in other areas, can choose one of two other tracks, Applied Track or General Track.

The latter two tracks include fewer Physics courses, but require that the student take a coherent program of courses (a concentration) from other departments together with our own. The details of the concentration must be worked out with an adviser from the department. The Applied Track is for majors interested in other technical subjects, for example, computing or engineering, while the General Track allows a concentration in non-technical areas, for example, finance, teaching, and science writing.

Core Courses (required for all tracks):
181/183 Physics I­—Mechanics, with Lab
182/184 Physics II—Electricity and Magnetism, with Lab
281 Computational Physics
284 Modern Physics I
286 Sophomore Lab
287/289 Physics III—Thermodynamics, Waves, Optics, with Lab
381 Writing in Physics
MATH 131 Calculus I
MATH 132 Calculus II
MATH 233 Multivariate Calculus

Professional Track (B.S.):
282 Techniques of Theoretical Physics
421 Mechanics
422 Electricity and Magnetism
423 Statistical Physics
424 Quantum Mechanics
440 Intermediate Lab I
500-level Physics course or lab or ASTRON 337, 338, 451 or 452
MATH 331 Differential Equations

Applied Track (B.S.):
Two of 421, 422, 423 and 424
440 Intermediate Lab I
500-level Physics course or lab
Concentration in scientific/technical field(s), minimum 18 credits, developed in consultation with and approved by the Physics adviser.

General Track (B.A.):
One of 421, 422, 423, or 424
440 or 500-level Physics course or lab
Concentration in non-departmental field(s), minimum 18 credits, developed in consultation with Physics adviser.

A more detailed description of the programs and courses for majors in physics is contained in the Handbook for Current and Prospective Physics Majors available online at and from the Undergraduate Program Director.

Career Opportunities

Physics provides an excellent background for a wide variety of careers in science, and in science-related and technological fields. A survey of the department’s graduates has yielded the following information. About half of those responding are in science-related industrial jobs; half of these had received advanced degrees (M.S. or Ph.D.) before or during employment. About one-third of the respondents are presently in graduate school or in academic positions following graduate school. One-tenth of those surveyed are in the medical professions, and another one-tenth are employed in other fields. Graduates are in a wide variety of professions. Some examples include a chemical engineer, a supervisor in charge of inspection techniques for nuclear power plants, a systems engineer in ship design, and a graduate student in oceanography. Several graduates are M.D.s or medical students. One of our former majors is now a Professor of Physics at the University of Massachusetts.

Industrial research and development is an appealing career opportunity; for this goal a highly laboratory-oriented physics curriculum is recommended. A master’s degree increases the number of opportunities in industry. For teaching at the secondary school level one needs also to complete the education courses necessary for certification. These courses can easily be fitted into a Physics major’s program, especially the General Track. For teaching at the community college level a master’s degree is usually the minimum requirement; at the college or university level (and for many research jobs in government or industrial laboratories) a Ph.D. is required.

Many students take courses in other sciences, in mathematics, or in engineering, in addition to their physics curriculum, to strengthen their industrial “marketability” or to prepare for graduate school in programs such as astronomy, biophysics, meteorology, geophysics, oceanography, computer science, polymer science, etc. The Applied and General tracks are particularly useful in this regard.

The undergraduate program of a physics major is frequently taken by individuals planning to apply to medical or dental school. Some medical professions, such as nuclear medicine and health physics, are directly related to physics. Physics can also be a reasonable preparation for law school. Patent law, for example, requires a technical background.

Few individuals with bachelor’s or advanced degrees in physics are unemployed or seriously underemployed. A physics education provides a broad background of fundamental principles and develops skills in solving complex problems, enabling effective contribution in many kinds of traditional and novel activities.

Infomation on careers and job opportunities in physics may be found at the American Physical Society website, under “careers and employment.”

The Minor

To satisfy the requirements for a minor in Physics the student must complete 15 credits of Physics courses at the 200 level or above, in addition to the Physics and Math prerequisites for these courses. No more than three credits of Independent study can count towards the 15-credit requirement.

Courses for Nonmajors

The department offers a variety of courses for students with varied interests and needs. Introductory courses intended mainly for nonscience majors are PHYSICS 100, 114, 115, 116, 120, 125, 139, and 190E. (114 is of special interest to Communication Disorders majors, 115 to Music majors.) PHYSICS 131-134 are for life-science majors; 151-154 are for majors in engineering, chemistry, and other physical sciences.

Physics | Courses | Faculty