St. Olaf CollegeAcademic CatalogSt. Olaf College

Table of Contents
Academic Life
Academic Regulations
International and Off-Campus Studies
Special Programs
Admissions and Financial Aid
Life Outside the Classroom
Facts and Figures
College Calendar

Changes that have occurred in St. Olaf academic policy and curriculum since the publication in 2002 of the St. Olaf Catalog for 2002–04 are indicated in red and red strikethrough type.

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Please note: This is NOT the most current catalog.


Chair, 2002-03: David Nitz, atomic physics

Faculty, 2002-03: James Cederberg, atomic and molecular physics; David Dahl, condensed-matter theory; Jason Engbrecht, positron physics; Robert Jacobel, geophysics, ice and climate interactions; Amy Kolan, mathematical physics, statistical mechanics

Physics is the study of how and why things work -- from the minute world of the atomic nucleus to the universe itself -- within the context of a few fundamental laws. The goal of the physics curriculum is to acquaint students with basic natural phenomena and with the quantitative methods of experimentation and theoretical analysis through which we come to understand them. It provides an excellent preparation for students planning a technical career in physics, engineering, astronomy or newly emerging interdisciplinary programs (biophysics, geophysics, materials science, chemical physics, etc.). In addition, physics supports the background training of biologists, chemists and the concentrations of environmental studies or computer science. Undertaking a liberal arts physics program enables students to become technically literate scientists who have a broad understanding of the world and can communicate well.


Students planning to take a single physics course should consider 112, 123, 124, 252 or 254. The two-semester sequence, 124-125, makes some use of calculus and is appropriate for students needing physics to support work in another major (especially biology or chemistry).


Prospective physics majors should enroll in 126 and a calculus course in the Fall Semester of their first year, although advanced placement may be given after consultation with the department chair. Requirements for the physics major include courses 126, 127, 228 and 229, 244 and 245, 374 and 384, 375 and 385, 376 and 386, and one physics elective numbered above 120. (Note that the elective requirement is waived for students obtaining teacher certification.) In some cases it is possible to use the 124-125 sequence to transfer into the major -- see the chair. Calculus, linear algebra, multivariable calculus and differential equations are prerequisites for some of the required courses.

Students planning to apply for graduate study in physics are advised to take Physics 379 and to consider additional physics electives, complex analysis, abstract algebra, probability, statistics, numerical analysis and real analysis. A physics major is especially suited as preparation for graduate study in electrical engineering with the inclusion of Physics 246 and independent study in electronics or computer interfacing.


Students who demonstrate excellence in physics coursework and who complete and report on an additional outside project will be considered for distinction in physics. The project may take the form of a public presentation on research work or a topic of current interest in physics or written work such as a published paper or a paper submitted for Physics 398 (Independent Research). Other activities may be eligible -- check with the department chair. In seeking to honor outstanding coursework in the major, faculty members do not rely solely on grades earned, but also consider factors such as improvement and dedication. Faculty members nominate candidates who have met the additional project criterion and a majority vote is taken. Students who elect the S/U grading option for a Level II or Level III physics course will not be eligible for distinction in physics.


To obtain certification as a teacher of physical science, a physics major must take the appropriate education courses and some additional science courses. The Education Department chair should be consulted for details of the available options. The requirement for a physics elective is waived.

The computer science concentration (consult Index) can be designed to emphasize computer hardware by inclusion of Physics 246, computer interfacing (offered as an independent study) and independent study in electronics.

Students interested in the engineering profession may choose from two primary options. A cooperative five-year program with either Washington University or the University of Minnesota provides a B.A. degree from St. Olaf and a B.S. in engineering from the university. Many students prefer instead to complete a St. Olaf degree and then enter a master's degree program at an engineering school of their choice. Such a route typically takes 1.5-2 years beyond the B.A. Students contemplating either of these options should consider taking the intensive Interim course in engineering offered at Washington University.

Each summer, 10 to 15 research positions are generally available on campus for students interested in working with faculty on current research projects. These projects are supported by outside funding agencies and provide a stipend for student participants. Current active areas of faculty interest include: atomic spectroscopy (Nitz), geophysics, ice and climate interactions (Jacobel), mathematical physics (Kolan), molecular beam spectroscopy (Cederberg), and positron physics (Engbrecht).

Students also may register during the year for 398 (Independent Research) or apply to the Oak Ridge Science Semester Program (see Index). International programs which can include course work in physics are the British University programs at Lancaster and the University of East Anglia.


112 Introductory Astronomy
A basic introduction to astronomy, this course concentrates on "How do we know what we know?" Students explore questions such as "How do we measure the distance to a star?" and "How do we know the universe is expanding?" In addition to studying the solar system, stars, black holes, galaxies and the history of the universe, students engage in rooftop viewing using the department's telescopes. Prerequisite: proficiency in algebra and geometry.
Offered Spring Semester. Currently offered both semesters. GE: NST-P.

123 Geophysics: Perspectives on the Dynamic Earth
This course considers a variety of topics in earth and environmental science. Beginning with the origin of the earth and planetary system, the course examines crustal evolution and plate tectonics, geologic resources and hazards and the relationship of these surface phenomena to processes occurring in the earth's interior. It concludes with a study of the oceans, the atmosphere, the earth's climate system and environmental change. Prerequisite: proficiency in algebra and geometry. Offered Fall Semester. GE: NST-P.

124, 125 Principles of Physics I, II
This two-semester in-depth course addresses topics in classical and modern physics using algebra, geometry and some calculus. The course is well-suited for students of biology or chemistry or for those desiring a thorough introduction beyond the high-school level.

Physics 124 takes up the Newtonian mechanics of point particles (motion, mass, force, torque, energy, momentum and gravitation), Einstein's reexamination of space time (relativity) and nuclear physics. One laboratory meeting per week. Prerequisite: Mathematics 120 or 122. GE: NST-P, NSL. Offered Fall Semester.

Physics 125 explores the character of electric and magnetic forces and fields, then takes up the extended description of matter (vibrations, waves -- sound and light). Finally, both particle and wave descriptions are shown to be necessary for discussing quantum mechanics and its application to atomic physics. One laboratory meeting per week. Prerequisites: Mathematics 120 or 122 and Physics 124. GE: NST-P, NSL. Offered Spring Semester.

126, 127, 228 Analytical Physics, I, II, and III
This three-semester calculus-based sequence leads the student through the quarter millennium of the basic principles that account for the processes involved in baseballs, car engines, electrical power distribution systems, stereos and black holes. It is the starting point for a major in physics and is also appropriate for majors in fields such as chemistry or mathematics who desire more mathematical depth than would be used in the two-semester 124-125 sequence.

Physics 126 is a study of Newtonian mechanics -- motion, forces, energy, gravity and rotation. There is one 2.5-hour laboratory meeting per week. Prerequisite: concurrent registration in (or previous completion of) Mathematics 120 or 122. GE: NST-P, NSL. Offered Fall Semester.

Physics 127 explores vibrational motion, waves, fluids, heat and geometric optics. There is one 2.5-hour laboratory meeting per week. Prerequisites: Physics 126 or permission of instructor, and concurrent registration in (or previous completion of) Mathematics 126 or 128. GE: NST-P, NSL. Offered Spring Semester.

Physics 228 treats electricity, magnetism, electromagnetic waves and relativity. Students taking this course must also register for the 0.25-credit lab course Physics 229. Prerequisites: Physics 127 and concurrent registration in (or previous completion of) Mathematics 220 or 222. Offered Fall Semester.

229 Physics Laboratory (0.25)
This integrated program of laboratory exercises accompanies Physics 228. One laboratory period each week. Offered Fall Semester.

244 Modern Physics
Quantum mechanics has changed the conceptual framework and revolutionized our understanding of atoms and molecules, both isolated and in condensed states of matter. It also guides our understanding of the nucleus and elementary particles. This course examines these discoveries and several applications they produced. Prerequisites: Physics 228 and concurrent registration in Physics 245 and Math 230. Offered Spring Semester.

245 Modern Physics Laboratory (0.25)
This course, meeting once a week, uses both historical experiments and open-ended investigations with modern instrumentation to examine in detail the important developments covered in Physics 244.

246 Electronic Circuits, Components and AC Circuit Theory
This introduction to fundamentals of DC and AC circuit theory and the principles of semiconductor electronics includes detailed studies of bipolar and field-effect transistors and operational amplifiers. Students attend one laboratory period each week. Prerequisite: Physics 125 or 228.

252 Musical Acoustics
This course offers an introduction to the physics of sound waves, the biological, physical and psychological origins of sound perception and the synthesis of sounds and sound production in different instruments. Students explore these topics, as well as sound recording and reproduction systems, through lectures, discussions, laboratory experiments and student presentations. Prerequisite: proficiency in algebra and geometry. No musical experience necessary. Interim only. GE: NST-P, NSL.

254 Origins of Nuclear Weapons
In 1945, bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forever changed the nature of warfare. What were the scientific developments, who were the people and what was the political, social, military and psychological environment that produced these terrible devices? Assigned readings, daily discussions and papers deal with these questions. Lectures, demonstrations and regular laboratory experiments concentrate primarily on the scientific background. Prerequisite: high school algebra. Interim only. GE: NST-P, NSL.

294 Internship

298 Independent Study

374 Classical Mechanics
This course is an analytical study of Newtonian mechanics, including the harmonic oscillator, central force motion, non-linear oscillators, chaos and an introduction to the Lagrangian formulation. Students use computers extensively. Prerequisites: Physics 127, Mathematics 230, and concurrent registration in Physics 384. Offered Fall Semester.

375 Maxwell's Equations
This course utilizes integral and vector calculus in a thorough and analytic examination of classical electromagnetic theory and the physical laws on which it is based. Topics include electric and magnetic fields, macroscopic interaction of electromagnetism with matter and the propagation of electromagnetic waves in various media. Concurrent registration for a 0.25-course lab (Physics 385) is required. Prerequisites: Physics 228 and 229, Mathematics 226 or 228, and 230. Offered Spring Semester.

376 Quantum Mechanics
Students analytically investigate Quantum Theory, in which a particle's behavior is described through a statistically-interpreted wave function rather than through the concepts of Newtonian mechanics. Topics include an examination of the conceptual framework, solution of the Schrodinger Equation for systems such as the harmonic oscillator and the hydrogen atom and approximation methods for treating more complex systems and the interaction of radiation with matter. Prerequisites: Physics 244 and 374, and concurrent registration in Physics 386. Offered Fall Semester.

379 Statistical Physics
How do macroscopic variables (e.g. energy, pressure) develop through the collision or interaction of microscopic objects? Why is the spread of disease in an orchard similar to a piece of iron becoming magnetized? Students study classical and quantum gases, followed by magnets and phase transitions (Ising Model, percolation, renormalization) and employ both analytical and computer methods (Monte-Carlo sampling, simulations, molecular dynamics). Prerequisite: Physics 244.

384, 385, 386 Advanced Physics Laboratory (0.25)
Experiments are selected from the areas of physics covered by Physics 374, 375 and 376 respectively. Emphasis is on the development of good laboratory techniques and the ability to work independently. Each 0.25-course registration will average one afternoon of work each week.

390 Selected Topics
In-depth study of particular topics in physics. Topics are based on student interest and available staff. Recently taught courses include image processing and cosmology.

394 Internship

398 Independent Research

399 Senior Seminar (0.25)
Seniors study topics of current interest, based upon presentations by staff, participants and visitors, library research and assigned readings. Prerequisites: Physics 374, 375 and 376. P/N only. Available on request.