Physics

What Will Studying Physics Look Like in Fall 2020?

In line with the rest of the College, the only courses in the sciences likely to be offered in-person are the First Year Studies courses in Biology (FYS: Conflicts in Biology) and Chemistry (FYS: The Extraordinary Chemistry of Everyday Life). Because other courses will likely have a mixture of students who are living on-campus, commuting, and participating online, the class meetings will be conducted on line via MySLC, Zoom, or another platform. Where possible, individual conferences for students in science and math courses will be conducted in-person. Group conferences for lectures will be conducted online for small cohorts of remote students and in-person where possible for on-campus and commuting students. The topics of discussion covered in classes and conferences will remain the same, regardless of whether students are in person or online.

Traditional lab experiences like those that have existed in previous years will not be possible in the same way in the fall. Here’s how labs will work in Physics, along with some other information about this discipline.

  • Physics labs will be running concurrently with the introductory physics sequence for both the fall and spring semesters. Labs will be designed to make use of equipment available at home, online simulations, and using free apps that are designed for taking data using smart phone sensors. Equipment will be loaned out to students who do not have access to a smart phone and/or computational equipment. The first hour of lab will be synchronous on Zoom (with saved recordings for students who cannot join synchronously) to provide a general overview of the lab and answer any student questions. The class will be split into small groups based on time availability, and groups are expected to meet online or in-person each week to complete the lab.
  • Physics courses are designed to make full use of the interactive features of remote learning to provide equitable experiences for all students, regardless of whether they are on-campus or not. The course and lab content will not be diminished in any way by going remote. Physics tutoring will be held online during certain hours each week, and an online Q&A forum will be monitored closely by the instructor and physics tutors to address any questions about the online material in a timely manner.

As of now, the Summer Science Program for 2021 is expected to proceed as normal. Information and applications regarding internship and externship opportunities for research in science and mathematics will be made available towards the end of the fall and beginning of the spring semester. Advising for our pre-professional programs (pre-health and Columbia combined Engineering plan) will continue to be provided to students in-person or online.

Further questions regarding any of the 2020-21 academic year plans should be directed to the appropriate faculty.


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.

2020-2021 Courses

Physics

Time to Tinker

Open , Small Lecture—Spring

Do you enjoy designing and building things? Do you have lots of ideas for things that you wished existed but do not feel you have enough technical knowledge to create it yourself? This course is meant to provide 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 multiple units, including: the engineering design process, tools and materials, basic electronics, introduction to Arduino, basic mechanics, and 3D printing. There will be weekly readings and assignments, and each unit will include a small group project to demonstrate the new skills that you have acquired. For a semester-long, team-based conference project, your team will create an engineered piece that will be exhibited and presented, as well as write a report reflecting on the design, desired functionality, and individual contributions that led to the finished product.

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Chaos

Open , Seminar—Fall

This course introduces the beautiful world of nonlinear and chaotic dynamics and also provides the mathematical and numerical tools to explore the astounding patterns that can arise from these inherently unpredictable systems. We shall see how chaos emerges from fairly simple nonlinear dynamical systems, utilize numerical methods to simulate the dynamics of chaotic systems, and explore characteristics of chaos using iterated maps, bifurcation diagrams, phase space, Poincaré sections, Lyapunov exponents, and fractal dimensions. Class time will oscillate between the presentation of new material and workshops for hands-on exploration. Students are encouraged to build and/or analyze their own chaotic system as potential conference projects. No previous programming experience is required, and all relevant mathematical concepts will be introduced.

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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. 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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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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Animal Physiology

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

Prerequisite: at least one course in the General Biology Series.

Animal physiology is the study how all components of animals—from cells to tissues to organs and organ systems—function together to support life. In this course, we will study many of the major categories of physiology while considering the overarching concepts of mechanism, form and function, adaptation, and homeostasis. Among possible topics are: circulation, respiration and breathing, feeding and digestion, movement and muscle, thermoregulation, osmoregulation, hormonal regulation, reproduction, neurons and the nervous system, sensory systems, and camouflage. As we discuss each physiological process, we will also explore ways in which different animals use species-specific adaptations to execute those processes (so-called comparative physiology). For instance, humans breathe using internal sack-like structures—the lungs—while frogs and salamanders can extract oxygen from the air by simple diffusion across their skin. And insects breathe through multiple small openings in their bodies that lead to an intricate series of tubes that permeate their entire organism, thereby obtaining oxygen without the use of a circulatory system. Diverse mechanisms such as these allow us to understand the fundamental principles of physiology and how they are employed in remarkable ways across the animal kingdom.

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Neurobiology

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Prerequisite: at least one college-level course in biology, chemistry, or psychology.

The human brain contains a hundred billion neurons whose functions underlie our remarkable capacities, including the ability to sense our environment, communicate via language, learn and remember, perform precise movements, and experience and express emotions. In this introduction to neurobiology, we will delve deep into the structure and function of neurons and how they communicate with each other, with a focus on the action potential and neurotransmission; and we will learn how changes in neuronal structure underlie learning and memory. We will then apply that knowledge to study our major senses from molecular-, cellular-, and systems-level perspectives. Students will engage with cutting-edge scientific research through examining primary literature articles in journal clubs and writing and presenting research papers on topics in neurobiology. Seminar classes will be complemented by weekly laboratory meetings that will involve the learning of techniques to study neurobiology, as well as the design and execution of a small-group, independent research project.

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Choreographic Thinking: Sensing, Rupture, and Change

Open , Seminar—Spring

This course is open to students with a broad range of interests and can function either as a component of a performing arts Third (in dance, music or theatre), as a two-credit stand-alone course, or as a five-credit seminar with an accompanying conference project in the form of a research paper or an artistic project.

A broad definition of choreography might be the organization of beings (animate and inanimate) in time and space. But what exactly is choreographic thinking? With what aptitudes does it engage? Choreographer Susan Rethorst has described the mind of a choreographer as having “a kind of spatial emotional map of a situation, the emotional psychological reading of place and of people in relation to that place and each other…in which sensitivity to phenomena leads to an engagement with the affect of movement, shape, relation, and space.” So choreographic thinking is a practice of heightened perception that, in turn, informs a practice of organization. Nevertheless, all perceptual senses are not commonly deemed of equal importance. While vision and hearing are typically held in high regard, proprioception (the sense of where one is in space) and kinesthesia (the sense of motion) are often misunderstood or disregarded altogether. At the same time, everyday metaphors across a range of fields evoke the choreographic. We speak of political movements, economic precarity, climate change, population migrations and displacements, crop rotations, life journeys, cultural exchanges, etc., etc. Through a selection of readings by theorists and artists, both in and outside of dance, we will examine the concept of choreographic thinking, how the sensorial and affective self is engaged in this embodied practice, and how we might apply these types of aptitudes to a myriad of endeavors and areas of study.

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Global Climate Change

Open , Seminar—Fall

Global climate change will be the defining issue of the coming decades, impacting most aspects of the global economy, policymaking, and day-to-day life. This seminar will provide a basic foundation in climate science, drawing on fundamental concepts of physics, chemistry, biology, and earth-systems science. We will also examine the linkages between global climate and human society, considering topics such as greenhouse-gas emissions, land-use change, and climate-change impacts. By the end of this course, students will be able to quantitatively apply the concepts that they have learned; to communicate through speech, in writing, and through graphics about technical issues related to climate change; and to understand the role of science in climate policy and decision making.

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Studies in Ecocriticism: The Idea of Nature in the Western Tradition

Open , Small Lecture—Spring

As the capitalistic and predatory model aggressively promoted by the United States continues to reveal itself as a major threat for biodiversity and the environment in general, it is vital to explore and understand the concept of “nature” at the core of the Western tradition and how it was shaped over the course of more than 2,000 years. This course will create a series of bridges between and among the history of literature, philosophy, and science, with implications for many other disciplines. Most importantly, we will discuss the Western and Judeo-Christian concept of nature in the context of race and ethnicity in America today by confronting it with works and arguments developed by Black, Indigenous, Latine, and Asian American authors. Among many themes, we will study how antiquity came to develop a concept of “physis,” so different from our modern understanding of physics, but also shaped our aesthetic eye with the creation of the pastoral genre and the idea of agreeable and tamed landscapes or set a model for a utilitarian relationship to nature with Hesiod and Virgil’s agricultural treaties. We will also analyze specific places, such as the forest in Medieval chivalric romances and American “wilderness” fictions, or chaotic landscapes admired and imagined by the Romantics, or the sea as depicted in Melville’s Moby Dick. The 17th-century scientific revolution and its mathematical and mechanistic approach to nature will lead us to discuss with Descartes the concept of animality in parallel with contemporary philosophers such as Deleuze and Guattari, who make use of models like the burrow or territoriality imported from the animal realm. Going into a completely different direction, we will question the characteristics of a Judeo-Christian conception of the world organized around a remote and immaterial god in direct opposition to a more organic understanding of nature as a “motherly” and immanent figure, with all of the reservations that such a figure implies. These are some of the questions that we will explore, and the focus of our discussions will be to bring new voices in order to deconstruct the Eurocentric concept of “nature.”

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An Introduction to Statistical Methods and Analysis

Open , Lecture—Fall

Prerequisites: basic high-school algebra and plane-coordinate geometry

Variance, correlation coefficient, regression analysis, statistical significance, 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. Given that this is a presidential election year, we will also be closely watching the national polls and discussing the difficulties of projecting future results with accuracy (and why pollsters got it wrong in 2016). 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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Mathematics in Theory and Practice: Probability, Risk Analysis, and Optimization

Intermediate , Seminar—Year

Prerequisite: successful completion of two semesters of college-level calculus (or its equivalent)

What is chance, and how do we measure it? Do we measure the probability of winning the Mega Millions Lottery in the same way that we assess the likelihood of a volcanic eruption in Hawaii? What tools are available to understand and measure uncertainty and risk? How can an understanding of probabilities better inform the decisions that we make in our personal and professional lives? How can we make the very best choice(s) amidst an enormous number of available options? How can individuals and businesses make critical decisions with confidence despite incomplete information and considerable uncertainty of future states? This calculus-based introduction to advanced probability theory, risk analysis, and operations research (optimization theory) engages these topics with an eye on diverse applications in the natural sciences, business, economics, and the social sciences. Topics of exploration will include the essential preliminaries of discrete mathematics (symbolic logic, proof technique, and set theory), combinatorial probabilities, distributions of prominent discrete and continuous random variables (Gaussian normal, binomial, Poisson, etc.), conditional probability and independence, joint distributions, expectation, variance, covariance, laws of large numbers, the Central Limit Theorem, Bayes Theorem, Markov chains, stochastic processes, linear programming and the powerful simplex method, sensitivity of optimized solutions to slight shifts in input parameters, duality theory, integer programming, nonlinear optimization, stochastic programming, and the four classic examples of optimization theory (the transportation/assignment problem, the network flow problem, the diet problem and the traveling salesman problem). Using mathematical software, students will gain practical experience in the art of computer simulation and optimal solution identification.

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Ecopoetry

Open , Seminar—Year

In this poetry class—a yearlong school of poetry and the living world—we will consider the great organism Gaia, of which we are a part. We will read and write poems every week. We will ask questions: When did we begin to think of nature as apart from us? Why did we begin to speak of the animals as if we are not also animals? What are the stories and myths that have determined out attitude toward what we are and what we believe? We will read some of these stories and myths (myths of creation, Eden, the lost garden). We will read the long and rich tradition of poetry addressing itself to this subject, from the early indigenous peoples through the Zen monks and Wordsworth and right up through Gary Snyder and to utterly contemporary poets writing right now. We will read books and articles that teach us about the other animals and living entities that we call plants and trees and planets and galaxies. Each student will research an aspect of the living world and teach the rest of us what they have learned. And we will write poems that incorporate that knowledge. We will read books of poems but also watch films, take field trips, and meet with each other outside of class in weekly poetry dates. By the end of the class, my hope is that each of us will have a greater understanding of the great organism that we call Earth and will create a collection of poems that engage the questions that our class raises: What is time? What is death? What is Eden? Where is the garden now? Who are the other organisms? How have we, as a species, affected the other organisms? How have we affected the oceans, the earth, the air? How can poetry address the planetary emergency? Required for this class: intellectual curiosity, empathy, and a willingness to observe the world, to pay attention, and to write poetry that matters. This is a class for experienced writers, as well as for those who want to give writing poetry a try. All are welcome.

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