Physics

Related disciplines

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.

2017-2018 Courses

Physics

First-Year Studies: It's About Time

Open , FYS—Year

This seminar will explore the topic of time from a wide variety of viewpoints—from the physical to the metaphysical to the practical. We will seek the answers to questions such as: What is time? How do we perceive time? Why does time appear to flow only in one direction? Is time travel possible? How can I make the most use of my time? We will discuss Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, explore the perception of time across cultures and eras, construct an appreciation of the arrow of time by designing and building a Rube Goldberg machine, as well as learn some useful time-management skills. Time stops for no one, but we will pause to appreciate its uniqueness.

Faculty

Classical Mechanics (Calculus-Based General Physics)

Open , Lecture—Fall

Permission of the instructor is required. Prerequisite: one semester of calculus. Students who have not completed a second semester of calculus are strongly recommended to enroll in Calculus II, as well. Classical Mechanics or equivalent, along with 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 dynamics, kinematics, 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 and in workshop-style group conferences. In addition to lectures and group conferences, the class will meet weekly to conduct laboratory work.

Faculty

Space, Time, and the Universe

Open , Seminar—Fall
What are space and time? Are they absolute or relative? What is the broad description of the universe, and what are its origin and fate? This course will explore these perennial philosophical questions through the lens of physics and cosmology. The presentation will be primarily conceptual and will not require previous background in physics or mathematics beyond algebra. Topics covered will include the cosmological frameworks and conceptions of space and time in ancient, medieval, and Newtonian science; the experimental and conceptual challenges that led Einstein to the theory of special relativity; the merging of space and time into spacetime; and the relation between gravity and the geometry of spacetime described by general relativity. Finally, we will discuss the current Big Bang cosmological model, the evidence for it, and the open problems in the field. Seminars will incorporate discussion and some problem-solving activities.
Faculty

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.

Faculty

Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Students must have completed one year of calculus, as well as one year of general physics and/or general chemistry.

What does a thermometer measure? How does a fridge work? How do materials react to the application of heat or magnetism? In this course, we will introduce an array of concepts—such as temperature, entropy, and internal energy—with which these and similar questions can be addressed. We will cover the laws satisfied by these quantities (thermodynamics), their grounding on the statistical properties of large collections of particles (statistical mechanics), and their applications through various topics in physics, chemistry, and engineering. Seminars will include a mixture of discussion and mathematical problem solving. This is a standard intermediate course for students interested in pursuing physics, physical chemistry, or engineering.

Faculty

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 and exploratory and problem-solving activities. In addition, the class will meet weekly to conduct laboratory work.

Faculty

Electromagnetism and Light (Calculus-Based General Physics)

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Prerequisites: Classical Mechanics or equivalent, along with Calculus II or equivalent.

In this follow-on course to Classical Mechanics, 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 will incorporate discussion, exploratory activities, and problem-solving activities. In addition, the class will meet weekly to conduct laboratory work.

Faculty

Mathematical Modeling I: Multivariable Calculus

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Prerequisite: successful completion of Calculus II or the equivalent (a score of 4 or 5 on the Calculus BC Advanced Placement exam).

It is difficult to overstate the importance of mathematics for the sciences. Twentieth century polymath John von Neumann even declared that the “sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which…describes observed phenomena.” This two-semester sequence will introduce students to the basic mathematical ingredients that constitute models in the natural and social sciences. This first course in the sequence will concentrate on extending the concepts and tools developed in single-variable calculus to work with multiple variables. Multivariable calculus is a natural setting for studying physical phenomena in two or three spatial dimensions. We begin with the notion of a vector, a useful device that combines quantity and direction, and proceed to vector functions, their derivatives (gradient, divergence, and curl), and their integrals (line integrals, surface integrals, and volume integrals). The inverse relationship between derivative and integral appearing in single-variable calculus takes on new meaning and depth in the multivariable context, and a goal of the course is to articulate this through the theorems of Green, Gauss, and Stokes. These results will be of particular interest to students pursuing physics, engineering, or economics, where they are widely applicable. Students will gain experience developing mathematical models through conference work, which will culminate in an in-depth application of seminar ideas to a mathematical model in the natural, formal, or social sciences, based on student interest.

Faculty
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Mathematical Modeling II: Differential Equations and Linear Algebra

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Prerequisite: Mathematical Modeling I or the equivalent (college-level course in multivariable calculus).

At the center of many mathematical models, one often finds a differential equation. Newton’s laws of motion, the logistic model for population growth, and the Black-Scholes model in finance are all examples of models defined by a differential equation; that is, an equation in terms of an unknown function and its derivatives. Most differential equations are unsolvable; however, there is much to learn from the tractable examples, including first-order equations and second order linear equations. Since derivatives are themselves linear approximations, an important approach to differential equations involves the algebra of linear transformations, or linear algebra. Building on the study of vectors begun in Mathematical Modeling I, linear algebra will occupy a central role in the course, with topics that include linear independence, Gaussian elimination, eigenvectors, and eigenvalues. Students will gain experience developing mathematical models through conference work, which will culminate in an in-depth application of seminar ideas to a mathematical model in the natural, formal, or social sciences, based on student interest.

Faculty
Related Disciplines

Abstract Algebra: Theory and Applications

Advanced , Seminar—Spring

Prerequisite: Calculus I and Discrete Mathematics or other evidence of successful preparation for advanced study in mathematics; permission of the instructor is required.

In pre-college mathematics courses, we studied the underlying methodology, concepts, and applications of basic algebra. We appointed letters of the alphabet to abstractly represent unknown quantities and translated real world (and often complicated) problems into simple equations whose solutions, if they could be found, held the key to greater understanding of the situation at hand. Fine, but algebra does not end there. Advanced algebra examines sets of various types of objects (matrices, polynomials, functions, rigid motions, etc.) and the operations that exist on these sets. The approach is axiomatic: One assumes a small number of basic properties, or axioms, and attempts to deduce all other properties of the mathematical system from these few properties. Such abstraction allows us to study, simultaneously, all of the various structures satisfying a given set of axioms and identify both their commonalties and their differences. Specific topics to be covered include groups, actions, isomorphisms, symmetries, permutations, rings, and fields and their various applications.

Faculty
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