Physics & Astronomy Program: Guide to the Physics Major

The requirements for the bachelor's degree in physics consist of 10 courses in physics, two advanced courses in mathematics, and two in other sciences. The physics classes can be broken into three groups, Introductory, Intermediate, and Advanced.

Introductory Courses

There are four courses in the introductory physics sequence:

  • Physics 120: Matter in Motion.
  • Physics 121: Principles of Electromagnetics
  • Physics 122: Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, and Their Applications
  • Physics 123: Heat, Light and Astronomy

These classes provide a calculus-based introduction to the major areas of classical and modern physics. Physics 120, 121, and 123 are taught in a studio format, with the lab and lecture portions of the class integrated together. To facilitate active learning, and take full advantage of the opportunities available in a small liberal arts college setting, enrollment in all the introductory classes is capped at 18 students.

Intermediate Courses

There are three courses in the intermediate sequence:

  • Physics 220: Intermediate Modern Physics
  • Physics 230: Intermediate Classical Mechanics
  • Physics 270: Intermediate Electromagnetism

These classes re-visit some of the material of Physics 120, 121, and 122, introducing new and more powerful mathematical techniques for solving problems in all areas of physics. At the end of this course sequence, students will be prepared to understand the essential elements of modern physics research, and to participate in ongoing research projects with faculty members.

Advanced Courses

Three advanced courses are required of all Physics majors.

Physics 300: Methods of Modern Experimental Physics is an entirely lab-based course, introducing students to some of the essential techniques used in contemporary physics research. Students in Physics 300 will work directly with some of the most sophisticated equipment in the department, including the 1 MV Pelletron particle accelerator, and the solid-state, gas, and dye lasers in the Optics lab.

The rotating course offerings in Physics 310: Advanced Topics in Physics are designed to give students a solid grounding in a specific area of physics, including an introduction to the current "hot topics" in contemporary research. Fields covered in Physics 310 courses include (but are not limited to): Solid State Physics, Nuclear and Particle Physics, Statistical Mechanics, Modern Physical Optics, and Quantum Optics. We typically offer two different Physics 310 courses each year.

Students are required to take one Physics 310 class for the Physics major. Students who may be interested in pursuing graduate study in physics or astronomy are encouraged to take as many Physics 310 classes as possible.

The very best education a young scientist can receive takes place not in the classroom, but in the laboratory, and so the final requirement for the Physics major is Physics 490: Physics Research. Physics 490 gives students the opportunity to work directly in some of the most exciting areas in contemporary physics research. These research projects represent the culmination of a career as a physics student, and many of our students have presented their research results at national or international conferences, and in publications co-written with faculty members. Some recent student research projects are described on the Student Research page.

All Physics majors are required to do at least one term of research under the direction of a faculty member. At least two terms of research are required for the degree with honors in physics, and students considering graduate study in physics or astronomy are encouraged to do research during the summer before their senior year as well.

Additional Courses

In addition to the required courses listed above, the Department of Physics and Astronomy offers a number of other elective courses that may be attractive to students interested in studying physics or astronomy:

Physics 100: First-Year Seminar is a team-taught course aimed at introducing entering students to the range of activities in the department. Five faculty members each spend two weeks presenting a series of lectures on a topic related to their own research. Possible topics include (but are not limited to): the physics of lasers, laser cooling, quantum information and quantum computation, nuclear and particle physics, black holes, and dark matter. Students in Physics 100 may also get the opportunity to use Union's particle accelerator and observatory as part of the class.

IMP 111, 112, 113: Integrated Math and Physics. In addition to the introductory sequence described above, we also offer a year-long introductory sequence combining introductory physics (the content of Physics 120 and 121) with introductory calculus (Math 113, Math 115, and Math 117). The class is team-taught by faculty members from Physics and Mathematics, integrating the two subject areas together, so that new mathematical tools and concepts are introduced just as they are needed to understand new areas of physics. The course is designed for science and engineering majors, and is open to students who qualify for Math 113.

Physics 200: Molecular Biophysics introduces students to the basic components and research techniques of biophysics, one of the most exciting areas in modern physics research. The class is also well suited to interested students majoring in Chemistry or Biochemistry.

ESC 224: Frontiers of Nanotechnology and Nanomaterials is a part of Union's Converging Technologies initiative, introducing students to the latest developments in the science of the very small. The class is an interdisciplinary team-taught class, looking at subjects in nanotechnology from many different perspectives, including physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering.

Physics 350: Quantum Mechanics provides an introduction to the methods, interpretation, and mathematical formalism of the modern theory of quantum mechanics, one of the most powerful and puzzling theories in science. Physics 350 is not required for the major, but students considering graduate study in physics are strongly encouraged to take it.

Interested students are also encouraged to select elective courses from the courses making up the Astronomy major.