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Physics (PHYS)

Chair: K. Segall

A student should major in the Department of Physics and Astronomy if he or she is interested in fundamental questions about the nature of matter and the nature of the universe, or in practical questions of engineering, applied physics, biophysics, or space science. To be successful, a student should also enjoy mathematics and quantitative reasoning. More than half of the graduating seniors in the department continue to graduate school in various disciplines, and many earn PhDs in physics, astronomy, engineering, biophysics, and planetary science. Approximately 25 percent enter technical careers directly after graduation. The rest pursue careers in teaching, business (often technology-based), management, architecture, medicine, and law.

PHYS 131/131L is a prerequisite for all physics courses that count towards the major. Prospective physics and astronomy-physics majors should take PHYS 131/131L in the fall semester of the first year. It is not offered in the spring semester, and it is very difficult to complete the physics major if this course is postponed until the sophomore fall. Likewise, students interested in pre-engineering must enroll in PHYS 131/131L in their first fall semester.

The department offers several courses of general interest, not intended for majors. In the fall term the department offers PHYS 111/111L, the first half of an algebra-based physics course intended for students majoring in other sciences such as molecular biology or chemistry, or for students completing requirements for further study in the health sciences.

Advanced Placement

Colgate course credit is awarded to students receiving a score of 4 or 5 on the AP Physics 1 or 2 exams. Students receiving a score of 4 or 5 on the AP Physics 1 and/or the AP Physics C-mechanics exams will receive credit for PHYS 111; students receiving a score of 4 or 5 on the AP Physics 2 and/or the AP Physics C-electricity and magnetism exam will receive credit for PHYS 112. Students who receive credit for PHYS 111 and/or 112 are still eligible to PHYS 131, 232, and 233 and should register for PHYS 131 if they are interested in a major within the department.

Pre-Engineering Combined Plan 

Students are offered two ways to prepare for engineering. They can major in physics and then go to graduate school in engineering, or they can use the Combined Plan. In the Combined Plan, students combine liberal arts education with engineering education by going first to Colgate and then to Columbia University or Washington University. Three years can be spent at Colgate and then, after two years at an engineering school, bachelor’s degrees from both schools can be earned—the “3-2 Combined Plan.” Interested students should discuss their plans with the department as soon as possible; Professor K. Segall serves as adviser to students in the 3-2 program.


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PHYS 111, Fundamental Physics I
This introductory course emphasizes concepts and principles of mechanics, heat, waves, and sound. The focus is on building concepts, grasping principles, and learning how consequences of principles and concepts can be quantitatively calculated and measured. Students may not take this course after having completed PHYS 431.

PHYS 111L, Fundamental Physics I Lab
Required corequisite to PHYS 111.

PHYS 131, Atoms and Waves
An introduction to modern physics via the concepts and discoveries of the 20th century. Topics include the structure and dynamics of atoms, special relativity, wave-particle duality of matter, and fundamentals of quantum mechanics. Studies contemporary physics using algebra, trigonometry, and a minimum of calculus. Two lectures, two problem-solving recitations, and one laboratory meeting per week.

PHYS 131L, Atoms and Waves Laboratory
Required corequisite to PHYS 131.

PHYS 131RE, Atoms and Waves Recitation
Required corequisite to PHYS 131.