Chair, 2013-14: Brian Borovsky, surface physics and friction

Faculty, 2013-14: David Dahl, condensed-matter theory; Jay Demas, biological physics; Jason Engbrecht, positron physics and robotics; Robert Jacobel, geophysics, ice and climate interactions; Amy Kolan, mathematical physics, statistical mechanics; Amy Larsen, condensed matter physics; David Nitz, atomic physics

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 related interdisciplinary programs (biophysics, geophysics, materials science, chemical physics, etc.). In addition, physics supports the background training of biologists, chemists, environmental scientists, and computer scientists. 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.

overview of the major

For most students the physics major begins in the fall of their first year with the calculus-based introductory sequence, Physics 130, 131, 232: Analytical Physics I, II, III, covering mechanics, electricity and magnetism, and wave phenomena. This is followed in the sophomore spring with Physics 244: Modern Physics, preceding more advanced studies in Physics 374: Classical Mechanics, Physics 375: Maxwell's Equations, and Physics 376: Quantum Mechanics in the junior and senior years. Students may also choose from a variety of elective courses depending on their career goals. A progressive sequence of courses in mathematics is a prerequisite for the courses above, and, as a result, many physics majors complete a second major in mathematics. Laboratory work is an important part of the curriculum throughout the major, and students are also encouraged to participate in research with physics faculty and in other summer programs.



Prospective physics majors should enroll in Physics 130 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 Physics 130, 131, 232, 244 and 245, 374, 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.


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 major can be designed to emphasize computer hardware by inclusion of Physics 246.

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.

In recent summers, approximately 12 research positions have been available on campus for students interested in working with physics faculty on current research projects. These projects are supported by both external and internal funds and provide a stipend for student physics participants. See the college's Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry web page for descriptions of recent projects.

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

recommendations for graduate study

Students planning on graduate work in physics or related areas should emphasize elective courses in the major and additional coursework in mathematics, computer science, and other sciences, depending on the field of interest. Summer research experience is also very valuable and is strongly recommended.


Students planning to take a single physics course should consider 112, 124, 154, or 252. 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).

112 Introductory Astronomy

A basic introduction to astronomy, this course concentrates on how 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 observation using the department's telescopes. Prerequisite: proficiency in algebra and geometry. Offered annually.

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 per week. Prerequisite: Mathematics 120 or equivalent. Offered annually in the 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 equivalent and Physics 124. Offered annually in the spring semester.

130, 131, 232 Analytical Physics, I, II, and III

This three-semester calculus-based sequence leads the student through 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 130 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 equivalent. Offered annually in the fall semester.

Physics 131, the second course in the three-semester calculus-based sequence, treats electricity, magnetism, and electromagnetic waves. There is one 2.5-hour laboratory meeting per week. Prerequisites: Physics 130 and concurrent registration in (or previous completion of) Mathematics 126 or 128. Offered annually in the spring semester.

Physics 232, the third course in the three-semester calculus-based sequence, explores special relativity, waves and oscillations, and the quantum mechanics of light and matter. There is one 2.5 hour laboratory meeting per week. Prerequisites: Physics 131 or permission of instructor, and concurrent registration in (or previous completion of) Mathematics 220. Offered annually in the fall semester.

154 Origins of Nuclear Weapons

In 1945, humanity's relationship to science was forever changed by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This course examines the scientific developments that led to these first atomic weapons, from the discovery of the nucleus to the manipulation of fission processes for the explosive release of nuclear energy. It also considers present-day weapons and nuclear power plants and discusses scientific developments in the human contexts that influenced them. Prerequisite: high school algebra.

244 Modern Physics

Quantum mechanics has changed the conceptual framework for our understanding of atoms and molecules, both as free particles 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 232 and concurrent registration in Physics 245 and Math 230. Offered annually in the 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. Offered annually in the spring semester.

246 Electronics

Modern scientific work relies heavily on electronic circuitry and computation. This course examines the fundamentals of analog and digital electronics, explores the applications of discrete and integrated circuits, and introduces the broad topic of computer control of experiments. Students develop hands-on skills in circuit building, computer interfacing, and programming in LabView®. Students attend one laboratory period each week. Prerequisite: Physics 125 or 131. Offered alternate years; next offered in 2014-15.

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. Musical experience is helpful but not required. Offered during Interim.

294 Internship

298 Independent Study

374 Classical Mechanics

This course is an analytical and computational 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 232 and Mathematics 230. Offered annually in the 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 in a 0.25-course lab (Physics 385) is required. Prerequisites: Physics 232 and Mathematics 226 and 230. Offered annually in the spring semester.

376 Quantum Mechanics

Students 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 of Quantum Mechanics, 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, Mathematics 226, and concurrent registration in Physics 386. Offered annually in the 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. Offered alternate years; next offered in 2014-15.

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 in a full-semester format. Topics are based on student interest and available staff. Recently taught courses include solid state physics, cosmology, and stellar evolution.

392 Short Topics in Physics

In-depth study of particular topics done in a half-semester format. Topics are based on student interest and available staff. Generally offered as a pair of half-courses in one semester but students may enroll in only one. Recently taught courses include general relativity and cosmology. Prerequisite: Physics 244 and Mathematics 230. Not offered in 2013-14.

394 Internship

396 Directed Undergraduate Research

This course provides a comprehensive research opportunity, including an introduction to relevant background material, technical instruction, identification of a meaningful project, and data collection. The topic is determined by the faculty member in charge of the course and may relate to his/her research interests. Prerequisite: Determined by individual instructor. Offered based on department decision. May be offered as a 1.00 credit course or .50 credit course.

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. May be repeated if topic is different.