Physics

Physics—the study of matter and energy, time and space, and their interactions and interconnections—is often regarded as the most fundamental of the natural sciences. An understanding of physics is essential for an understanding of many aspects of chemistry, which in turn provides a foundation for understanding a variety of biological processes. Physics also plays an important role in most branches of engineering; and the field of astronomy, essentially, is physics applied on the largest of scales.

As science has progressed over the last century or so, the boundaries between the different scientific disciplines have become blurred, and new interdisciplinary fields—such as chemical physics, biophysics, and engineering physics—have arisen. For these reasons, and because of the excellent training in critical thinking and problem solving provided by the study of physics, this subject represents an indispensable gateway to the other natural sciences and a valuable component of a liberal-arts education.

2019-2020 Courses

Physics

Exploring the Universe: Astronomy and Cosmology

Open , Lecture—Year

This yearlong course will provide a broad introduction to our current knowledge of the universe without requiring previous background in college-level science and math. Topics covered will include the history of our understanding of the universe; our current knowledge of the solar system, including the Sun, planets, moons, asteroids, and comets; the nature, life cycle, and properties of stars, as well as neutron stars and black holes; the possibility of extraterrestrial life; our knowledge of distant galaxies; and the description of the universe as a whole, its development from the Big Bang, and the unresolved questions concerning its origin and ultimate fate. Classes will incorporate discussions and some problem-solving activities. The course will also include occasional evening meetings for telescope observations.

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Classical Mechanics (Calculus-Based General Physics)

Open , Seminar—Fall

Permission of the instructor is required. Students are encouraged to have completed one semester of calculus as a prerequisite. It is strongly recommended that students who have not completed a second semester of calculus enroll in Calculus II, as well. Calculus II, or equivalent, is highly recommended in order to take Electromagnetism and Light (Calculus-Based General Physics) in the spring.

Calculus-based general physics is a standard course at most institutions; as such, this course will prepare you for more advanced work in physical science, engineering, or the health fields. (Alternatively, the algebra-based Introduction to Mechanics will also suffice for pre-medical students.) The course will cover introductory classical mechanics, including kinematics, dynamics, momentum, energy, and gravity. Emphasis will be placed on scientific skills, including: problem solving, development of physical intuition, scientific communication, use of technology, and development and execution of experiments. The best way to develop scientific skills is to practice the scientific process. We will focus on learning physics through discovering, testing, analyzing, and applying fundamental physics concepts in an interactive classroom, as well as in weekly laboratory meetings.

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Introduction to Mechanics (General Physics Without Calculus)

Open , Seminar—Fall

This course, or equivalent, is required to take Introduction to Electromagnetism, Light, and Modern Physics (General Physics Without Calculus) in the spring.

This course covers introductory classical mechanics, including dynamics, kinematics, momentum, energy, and gravity. Students considering careers in architecture or the health sciences, as well as those interested in physics for physics’ sake, should take either this course or Classical Mechanics. Emphasis will be placed on scientific skills, including problem solving, development of physical intuition, scientific communication, use of technology, and development and execution of experiments. Seminars will incorporate discussion, exploratory activities, and problem-solving activities. In addition, the class will meet weekly to conduct laboratory work. A background in calculus is not required.

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20th-Century Physics Through Three Pivotal Papers

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Prerequisites: one year of general physics and one year of calculus.

This course takes an in-depth look at three pivotal papers in 20th-century physics pertaining to special relativity and fundamental interpretations of quantum mechanics that transformed and defined our way of thinking in modern science. In this seminar-style class, we will deeply read, dissect, and discuss these three primary sources. In the process, we will together derive the predictions of special relativity; debate the various interpretations of quantum mechanics revolving around the famous Einstein, Podolsky, Rosen (EPR) paradox; and explore experiments meant to test our fundamental understanding of quantum mechanics.

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Introduction to Electromagnetism, Light, and Modern Physics (General Physics Without Calculus)

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Calculus is not a requirement for this course. Students should have had at least one semester of physics (mechanics).

This course covers electromagnetism and optics, as well as selected topics in modern physics. Emphasis will be placed on scientific skills, including problem solving, development of physical intuition, scientific communication, use of technology, and development and execution of experiments. Seminars will incorporate discussion, exploratory, and problem-solving activities. In addition, the class will meet weekly to conduct laboratory work.

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Resonance and Its Applications

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

This is a lab-based course designed to teach students critical advanced laboratory skills while exploring the fascinating phenomenon of resonance and its many applications. The course will be broken into three main units: mechanical resonators, electronic resonators, and quantum mechanical resonators. Resonators are physical systems that undergo periodic motion and react quite dramatically to being driven at particular frequencies (like the opera singer hitting just the right note to break a wine glass). These systems are very common in everyday life, as well as inside many important technological devices. Each unit will explore a particular application of resonance (e.g., building an AM radio receiver for electronic resonance and using our benchtop NMR system to explore quantum mechanical resonance). Although some class time will be spent going over the relevant theory, the majority of the class time will be spent designing and doing experiments using advanced lab equipment, analyzing data using Jupyter (iPython) notebooks, and reporting the results using LaTeX. For conference work, students are encouraged to develop their own experimental question, design their own experiment to answer that question, do the experiment, analyze the data, and present their findings at the Science and Mathematics Poster Session.

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Electromagnetism and Light (Calculus-Based General Physics)

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Students are encouraged to have completed Classical Mechanics, or equivalent, along with Calculus II, or equivalent.

This is the follow-on course to Classical Mechanics, where we will be covering waves, geometric and wave optics, electrostatics, magnetostatics, and electrodynamics. We will use the exploration of the particle and wave properties of light to bookend our discussions and ultimately finish our exploration of classical physics with the hints of its incompleteness. Seminars and weekly laboratory meetings will incorporate technology-based, exploratory, and problem-solving activities.

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Spectroscopy and Chemical Structure Determination

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Prerequisite: one semester of General Chemistry or General Physics.

Every time a chemist conducts a reaction or isolates a compound, his or her first task is to identify the molecular structure of what has been made or isolated. To help do this, chemists have a powerful array of modern instrumental techniques that are used to quickly and accurately determine the structures of compounds. One of the most challenging (and entertaining!) parts of chemistry is to use the information obtained from these techniques to assign structures to unknown compounds (a bit like Sherlock Holmes using clues to solve a murder mystery). In this course, we focus on the three most widely used techniques: mass spectrometry, infrared spectroscopy, and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. All of these techniques provide valuable information about the structures of molecules, and all are used on a day-to-day basis by most chemists. In the laboratory, we will gain hands-on experience in a variety of one- and two-dimensional NMR techniques and infrared spectroscopy. Once we have a sound understanding of each of those techniques, we will become chemical detectives and use the information that the techniques provide to solve chemical puzzles in order to elucidate the identities and structures of unknown molecules.

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Computer Organization

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Permission of the instructor is required. Students should have at least one semester of programming experience.

This course investigates how computers are designed “underneath the hood” and how basic building blocks can be combined to make powerful machines that execute intricate algorithms. There are two essential categories of components in modern computers: the hardware (the physical medium of computation) and the software (the instructions executed by the computer). As technology becomes more complex, the distinction between hardware and software blurs. We will study why this happens, as well as why hardware designers need to be concerned with the way software designers write programs and vice versa. Along the way, we will learn how computers work: from higher-level programming languages such as Python and JavaScript, to system-level languages C and Java, down to the basic zeroes and ones of machine code. Topics include Boolean logic, digital-circuit design, computer arithmetic, assembly and machine languages, memory hierarchies, and parallel processing. Special attention will be given to the RISC architectures—now the world’s most common general-purpose microprocessors. Time permitting, we will investigate the relationship between energy consumption and the rise of multicore and mobile architectures.

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Quantum Computing

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Prerequisite: Familiarity with linear algebra or equivalent mathematical preparation.

Physicists and philosophers have been trying to understand the strangeness of the subatomic world as revealed by quantum theory since its inception back in the 1920s; but it wasn't until the 1980s—more than a half-century after the development of the theory—that computer scientists first began to suspect that quantum physics might hold profound implications for computing, as well, and that its inherent weirdness might possibly be transformed into a source of immense computational power. This dawning realization was followed soon afterward by key theoretical and practical advances, including the discovery of several important algorithms for quantum computers that could potentially revolutionize (and disrupt) the cryptographic systems protecting practically all of our society’s electronic banking, commerce, telecommunications, and national security systems. Around the same time, researchers succeeded in building the first working quantum computers, albeit on a very small scale. Today the multidisciplinary field of quantum computing lies at the intersection of computer science, mathematics, physics, and engineering; it is one of the most active and fascinating areas in science, with potentially far-reaching consequences for the future. This course will introduce students to the theory and applications of quantum computing from the perspective of computer science. Topics to be covered will include bits and qubits, quantum logic gates and reversible computing, Deutsch’s algorithm, Grover’s search algorithm, Shor’s factoring algorithm, quantum teleportation, and applications to cryptography. No advanced background in physics, mathematics, or computer programming is necessary beyond a basic familiarity with linear algebra. We will study the quantitative, mathematical theory of quantum computing in detail but will also consider broader philosophical questions about the nature of physical reality, as well as the future of computing technologies.

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An Introduction to Statistical Methods and Analysis

Open , Lecture—Fall

Prerequisite: basic high-school algebra and geometry.

Correlation, regression, statistical significance, and margin of error...you’ve heard these terms and other statistical phrases bantered about before, and you’ve seen them interspersed in news reports and research articles. But what do they mean? And why are they so important? Serving as an introduction to the concepts, techniques, and reasoning central to the understanding of data, this lecture course focuses on the fundamental methods of statistical analysis used to gain insight into diverse areas of human interest. The use, misuse, and abuse of statistics will be the central focus of the course, and specific topics of exploration will be drawn from experimental design theory, sampling theory, data analysis, and statistical inference. Applications will be considered in current events, business, psychology, politics, medicine, and other areas of the natural and social sciences. Statistical (spreadsheet) software will be introduced and used extensively in this course, but no prior experience with the technology is assumed. Conference work, conducted in workshop mode, will serve to reinforce student understanding of the course material. This lecture is recommended for anybody wishing to be a better-informed consumer of data and strongly recommended for those planning to pursue graduate work and/or research in the natural sciences or social sciences.

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Calculus I: The Study of Motion and Change

Open , Seminar—Fall

Prerequisites: successful completion of trigonometry and precalculus courses. Students concerned about meeting the prerequisites should contact the instructor. This course is also offered in the spring semester.

Our existence lies in a perpetual state of change. An apple falls from a tree; clouds move across expansive farmland, blocking out the sun for days; meanwhile, satellites zip around the Earth transmitting and receiving signals to our cell phones. Calculus was invented to develop a language to accurately describe and study the motion and change happening around us. The Ancient Greeks began a detailed study of change but were scared to wrestle with the infinite; so it was not until the 17th century that Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, among others, tamed the infinite and gave birth to this extremely successful branch of mathematics. Though just a few hundred years old, calculus has become an indispensable research tool in both the natural and social sciences. Our study begins with the central concept of the limit and proceeds to explore the dual processes of differentiation and integration. Numerous applications of the theory will be examined. For conference work, students may choose to undertake a deeper investigation of a single topic or application of calculus or conduct a study of some other mathematically-related topic. This seminar is intended for students interested in advanced study in mathematics or sciences, students preparing for careers in the health sciences or engineering, and any student wishing to broaden and enrich the life of the mind.

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Calculus II: Further Study of Motion and Change

Open , Seminar—Spring

Prerequisite: one year of high-school calculus or one semester of college-level calculus. Students concerned about meeting the prerequisite should contact the instructor. This course is also offered in the fall semester.

This course continues the thread of mathematical inquiry following an initial study of the dual topics of differentiation and integration (see Calculus I course description). Topics to be explored in this course include the calculus of exponential and logarithmic functions, applications of integration theory to geometry, alternative coordinate systems, infinite series, and power series representations of functions. For conference work, students may choose to undertake a deeper investigation of a single topic or application of calculus or conduct a study of some other mathematically-related topic. This seminar is intended for students interested in advanced study in mathematics or sciences, students preparing for careers in the health sciences or engineering, and any student wishing to broaden and enrich the life of the mind. The theory of limits, differentiation, and integration will be briefly reviewed at the beginning of the term.

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First-Year Studies: The Way Things Go

Open , FYS—Year

The title of this course is borrowed from the 1987 art film by Peter Fichli and David Weiss, which follows a sequence of causal interactions in a Rube Goldberg-like way. Each object and action affects the next, as the piece evolves over space and time and with great sensory range. In this interdisciplinary studio FYS course, students will be asked to consider their own art-making practice as an interconnected group of acts that evolve over time. Ideas in any creative endeavor rarely arrive fully formed, but creativity, understanding, and clarity come through committed engagement with the act of making. All of our senses contribute to the way we understand the world around us and, consequently, inform how and why we make art. When we see something we’re excited by, we simultaneously hear, smell, or feel something else—which, in turn, affects our initial point of view. This sensory interconnectedness will serve as our course’s foundation, and students will delve deeply into ways of translating the raw data of experience into art. To do so, you will be asked to develop a rigorous studio practice and to work across a full range of mediums—drawing, painting, sculpture, installation, performance, video, photography, sound. Each work will inform the next as your ideas are translated across mediums. As we progress through the year, your artworks will evolve in unexpected ways, challenging you to recognize their potential to affect your subsequent actions. This class will alternate biweekly conferences with biweekly small-group activities, including project and conference work critiques, attendance at the Visual and Studio Arts Lecture Series, museum/gallery tours, and visits to artist studios in the New York City area.

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First-Year Studies: Ecopoetry: Poetry in Relation to the Living World

Open , FYS—Year

Poetry is the human song called out: in joy, in love, in fear, in wonder, in prayer, in rebuke, in war, in peace, in story, and in vision. The human poem collects us together, individuates us, and consoles us. We read poems at funerals, at weddings, graduations...they accompany us through the gates of our lives, in public, or in private...shared through a book, a computer, a letter, a song. Now we find ourselves at the brink of an unstoppable ecological disaster. A change of consciousness is necessary. How can poetry accomplish this? For a long time, we have not noticed how our civilizations and technologies have affected the rest of the living world. This course will ask questions: Who do we think we are? Who taught us that? Who are we in relation to the other animals? To trees and plants? To insects? To stars? How have our human myths informed those relationships? How are those myths evident in our human world today? What is poetry? What is ecopoetry? How can poetry instruct? How can poetry document? How can poetry re-vision? Prophesy? Protest? Preserve? Imagine? In our time together, you will read poetry written by published poets. You will write your own poems, one each week, and share them with each other. You will keep observation journals, meet with another person in our class each week in a poetry date, and meet with me in individual and small-group conferences. We will proceed as curious learners and writers. Through our close study, each of you (in conference work and together) will learn about a very specific aspect of the natural world that interests you (an animal, a forest, a coral reef, etc.) and then teach the rest of us in class what you have learned. We will learn how to write poems about these subjects so that the poem itself becomes an experience we have never had before. And we might slowly move away from the human as the center of the poem and welcome the rest of the living world in. We will know more at the end of this class about the other animals and plants and insects and rivers and oceans. If our hearts break with this deepening relationship, we might also discover a great joy and a new responsibility. We will want to share what we have learned and written with the wider community. We will find ways to do that. I can assure you, we will be changed. Students will have an individual conference every other week and a half-group conference on alternating weeks.

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