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.

Physics 2022-2023 Courses

Classical Mechanics (Calculus-Based General Physics)

Open, Small Lecture—Fall | 5 credits

Calculus-based general physics is a standard course at most institutions; as such, this course will prepare you for more advanced work in the physical science, engineering, or health fields. 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.

Faculty

Time to Tinker

Open, Small Lecture—Spring | 5 credits

Do you enjoy designing and building things? Do you have lots of ideas of things that you wished existed but do not feel you have enough technical knowledge to create yourself? Do you wish you could fix some of your favorite appliances that just stopped working? Do you want to help find solutions to problems in our community? This course is meant to give an introduction to tinkering, with a focus on learning the practical physics behind basic mechanical and electronic components while providing the opportunity to build things yourself. The course will have one weekly meeting with the whole class and three smaller workshop sessions to work on team-based projects. (You are expected to choose one of the three workshop sessions to attend weekly.) The course will be broken down into four primary units: design and modeling; materials, tools, and construction; electronics and Arduino; and mechanics. There will be weekly readings and assignments, and each unit will include both individual and small-group projects that will be documented in an individual portfolio to demonstrate the new skills that you have acquired. For a semester-long, team-based conference project, your team will be creating an engineered piece based on the needs of a community partner. At the end of the semester, your team will exhibit and present your work and write a report reflecting on the design, desired functionality, and individual contributions that led to the finished product. Let’s get tinkering!

Faculty

Electromagnetism & Light (Calculus-Based General Physics)

Open, Small Lecture—Spring | 5 credits

Calculus-based general physics is a standard course at most institutions; as such, this course will prepare you for more advanced work in the physical science, engineering, or health fields. This course will cover 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. 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.

Faculty

Resonance Research and Spectroscopy Seminar

Open, Seminar—Year | 10 credits

Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) has played a huge role in science since the mid-20th century, garnering five Nobel prizes across chemistry, physics, and medicine. Today, NMR remains a crucial analytical and diagnostic tool in these scientific disciplines. Fortunately, the recent development of inexpensive benchtop NMR spectrometers provides new opportunities for undergraduate students to gain hands-on learning and research skills related to this highly applicable technique. This yearlong, lab-based course has been co-developed and will be co-taught by experimental physicist Merideth Frey and physical chemist Colin Abernethy, so students can learn the science and applications of NMR while developing experimental research skills using Sarah Lawrence’s benchtop NMR spectrometers. The course will cover the theory, practice, and applications of NMR in a truly multidisciplinary way—linking the physics behind these techniques with their applications in chemistry, medicine, quantum information science, and beyond. In addition to work done as a class, students will undertake individual projects that will involve designing and performing their own research projects utilizing the benchtop NMR spectrometers. At the end of the year, students will be given the opportunity to present particularly successful projects as posters or talks at regional or national scientific meetings; this work may also be featured in the supplemental course material posted online.

Faculty

Quantum Mechanics

Intermediate/Advanced, Seminar—Spring | 5 credits

There are three kinds of people: those who understand quantum mechanics; those who do not understand quantum mechanics; and those who both simultaneously understand and do not understand quantum mechanics. This course will provide an introduction to the theoretical foundations of quantum mechanics. Topics will include: the classical physics paradigm, quantum state vectors, quantum operators and observables, commutator relations, the Schrödinger equation and time-evolution, the quantum harmonic potential, the quantum Coulomb potential and the hydrogen atom, angular momentum and spin, and the Feynman path integral formalism. No cats will be harmed. Familiarity with introductory physics, complex numbers, vectors, dot and cross products, and matrices is useful but not required.

Faculty

Resonance Research and Spectroscopy Seminar

Open, Seminar—Year

Nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) has played a huge role in science since the mid-20th century, garnering five Nobel prizes across chemistry, physics, and medicine. Today, NMR remains a crucial analytical and diagnostic tool in these scientific disciplines. Fortunately, the recent development of inexpensive benchtop NMR spectrometers provides new opportunities for undergraduate students to gain hands-on learning and research skills related to this highly applicable technique. This lab-based course has been co-developed and will be co-taught by experimental physicist Merideth Frey and physical chemist Colin Abernethy, so students can learn the science and applications of NMR while developing experimental research skills using Sarah Lawrence’s benchtop NMR spectrometers. This yearlong, lab-based course will cover the theory, practice, and applications of NMR in a truly multidisciplinary way—linking the physics behind these techniques with their applications in chemistry, medicine, quantum information science, and beyond. In addition to work done as a class, students will undertake individual projects that will involve designing and performing their own research projects utilizing the benchtop NMR spectrometers. At the end of the year, students will be given the opportunity to present particularly successful projects as posters or talks at regional or national scientific meetings; this work may also be featured in the supplemental course material posted online.

Faculty

Computer Organization

Intermediate, Seminar—Year

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. In particular, we will focus on the ARM architecture and Apple’s new M1 processors. Time permitting, we will investigate the relationship between energy consumption and the rise of multicore and mobile architectures.

Faculty

Quantum Computing

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

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 and 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.

Faculty

Natural Hazards

Open, Lecture—Fall

Natural hazards are Earth-system processes that can harm humans and the ecosystems on which we rely. These processes include a wide variety of phenomena, including volcanoes, earthquakes, wildfires, floods, heat waves, and hurricanes. The terms “natural hazard” and “disaster” are often used interchangeably. There have been many examples of natural hazards that have resulted in catastrophic loss of life, socioeconomic disruption, and radical transformation of natural ecosystems; however, through improved understanding of these phenomena, we can develop strategies to better prepare for and respond to natural hazards and mitigate harm. In this course, we will use case studies of natural-hazard events to explore their underlying Earth-system processes, covering topics such as plate tectonics, mass wasting, weather, and climate, along with the social and infrastructure factors that determined their impact on people. We will also explore related topics—such as probability, risk, and environmental justice—and the direct and indirect ways that different types of natural hazards will be exacerbated by global climate change. Students will attend one weekly lecture and one weekly group conference, where we will discuss scientific papers, explore data, and work on a collaborative project to investigate a potential natural-hazard event.

Faculty

Tradition and Transformation: 17th-Century British Literature

Open, Seminar—Year

In the 17th century in England, the great ordering coherences of medieval and earlier Renaissance thinking seemed to disintegrate under the warring impulses of individualism and authority, empiricism and faith, revolutionary transformation and reinforcement of tradition. Yet, even as monarchy and the established church were challenged and torn apart, the 17th century produced an extraordinary flowering of drama, poetry, and prose that expressed the contradictory energies of the period. We will study English writing of the 17th century in a roughly chronological sequence. The first semester will explore the aesthetics and ideology of the Stuart courts and the robust and bawdy urban century of London through a reading of masques and plays by Jonson and Shakespeare and their contemporaries; dramatic experiments in “metaphysical” and moral verse by Donne, Jonson, Herbert, and other poets; various developments in scientific, philosophical, and meditative prose by Bacon, Burton, and Browne; and the early poetry of Milton. The second semester will be devoted to major writers during the periods of the English Revolution and the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Our primary attention will be on the radical politics and the visionary poetics of Milton, particularly Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes; but we will also study the work of the cavalier and libertine court poets, as well as Andrew Marvell, Katherine Phillips, Aphra Behn, and John Dryden. John Bunyan’s spiritual allegory Pilgrim’s Progress and Behn’s colonial romance novel, Oroonoko, will provide a retrospect of the imagined and the social worlds that we have traversed and a prospect of the worlds to come.

Faculty

Metaphysical Poetry

Open, Seminar—Fall

The best lyric poets of 17th-century England have been loosely characterized as “metaphysical poets” because of their “wit”; their intellectual range, rigor, and inventiveness; the versatility and trickery of their poetic strategies; and their remarkable fusion of thought and passion. Masters of paradox, these poets stage and analyze their expressive intensities with technical precision. They eroticize religious devotion and sanctify bodily desire with fearless and searching bravado. They stretch their linguistic tightropes across a historical arena of tremendous political and religious turmoil, in response to which they forge what some critics consider to be early evidences of the ironic self-consciousness of modernity, poetic dramatizations of the Cartesian ego. We will test these claims, as well as the sufficiency of the category “metaphysical,” against the evidence of the poems themselves. We will closely read significant poems of Donne, Jonson, Herbert, Phillips, Herrick, Vaughan, Crashaw, Milton, Marvell, and Behn. We will attend primarily to how they work as poems, looking at argument, structure, diction, syntax, tone, image, and figure. We will also consider their religious, cultural, and psychological implications. Students will prepare three papers based on class readings. Conference work is recommended in correlative topics: the English Bible, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Shakespearean and Jacobean drama, or influences on and comparisons to Romantic or Modern English poetry.

Faculty

An Introduction to Statistical Methods and Analysis

Open, Lecture—Fall

Variance, correlation coefficient, regression analysis, 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; 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. Group conferences, 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 advanced undergraduate or graduate research in the natural sciences or social sciences.

Faculty

Calculus I: The Study of Motion and Change

Open, Seminar—Fall

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. The calculus was invented to develop a language to accurately describe and study the changes that we see. 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, the 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 topics 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 the calculus or conduct a study in some other branch of mathematics. This seminar is intended for students interested in advanced study in mathematics or science, students preparing for careers in the health sciences or engineering, and any student wishing to broaden and enrich the life of the mind.

Faculty