Physics & Astronomy First Year Courses

The Department of Physics and Astronomy is an energetic and enthusiastic group of students, faculty, and staff who are interested in studying the physical world. We ask deep questions like “What happened in the first seconds after the Big Bang” and practical questions like “How can the quantum mechanical properties of light improve medical diagnostics?” Our students form a supportive community: studying together, socializing, and working on projects in clubs ranging from Star Gate (astrophotography) to Impulse (making STEM open to students from all backgrounds) to the Engineering Club. 

The physics and astronomy curriculum is carefully designed to prepare students for a wide range of careers while also getting them ready to ask (and answer!) questions about the physical world through research projects. Our students work directly with the faculty on a wide range of research projects, both during the academic year and over the summer. Many students start research early in their Colgate careers, and all students will complete an independent research project in their senior year. Our graduates continually amaze and inspire us with what they achieve. Some follow traditional paths such as teaching at institutions ranging from major universities to high schools, or designing telescopes or managing satellites for NASA. Others apply their technical skills to software engineering or financial analysis. Still others design their own careers, such as the alumnus who opened a craft brewery and uses physics skills to analyze energy use, saving money while preserving the environment.

The first course in the physics and astronomy sequence is PHYS 131/131L. Traditionally, an introduction to physics starts with 17th-century mechanics. Instead, we begin our introductory course with a question that is still relevant today: Does light and matter consist of particles or waves? This question leads us into many important and exciting themes of 20th-century and 21st-century physics, including relativity and quantum mechanics. 

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 options for the major are severely restricted 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 course is designed to be accessible (but challenging!) to students who do not have any background in physics or calculus, although students without calculus credit should enroll concurrently in Math 161. Students who would like to gain a sense of the scope of the physics and astronomy-physics majors may consult both the University catalog sections of the department’s web page.

The department offers several courses of general interest, not intended for majors. PHYS 111/111L is the first half of an algebra-based physics course intended for students majoring in other sciences (e.g., molecular biology or chemistry, or for students completing requirements for further study in the health sciences) and is usually offered in the fall semester. This course is not recommended for first-year students, since students who are potentially interested in physics should enroll in PHYS 131 and students interested in other science disciplines should first enroll in those disciplines’ introductory courses.  

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  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 enroll in PHYS 131 in the first semester and then discuss their plans with the department as soon as possible; Professor K. Segall serves as adviser to students in the 3-2 program.


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.

Required corequisite to PHYS 111.

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.

Required corequisite to PHYS 131.

Required corequisite to PHYS 131.