Reed College Catalog

Physics is the most mature of the sciences and provides much of the conceptual apparatus and instrumentation for chemistry, biology, astronomy, and engineering. It has inspired the creative work of mathematicians, philosophers, and social scientists and has repeatedly transformed the framework of civilization. The physics curriculum at Reed College is designed to provide rigorous preparation for those who plan careers in the field while at the same time serving the needs of interested liberal arts students.

The typical physics major takes Physics 100 in the first year and Physics 200 as a sophomore; these courses survey the field from a broad perspective and lay the groundwork for more concentrated study in the last two years. Juniors ordinarily take Classical Mechanics (311), Quantum Mechanics (342), Electrodynamics (321 and 322), and Advanced Laboratory (331 and 332); these courses provide a thorough background for a wide range of possible thesis projects in the senior year. Optional courses include Optics, Thermal Physics, Solid State Physics, Astrophysics, Molecular Biophysics, Elementary Particles, Scientific Computation, and Classical Field Theory, as well as Advanced Classical Mechanics and Advanced Quantum Mechanics. Individual or group seminar courses in more specialized topics can usually be arranged at the student’s request.

The physics department’s web page is at

Requirements for the Major

For the student planning a career in physics:

  1. Physics 100, 200, 311, 321, 322, 331, 332, 342, 470.
  2. Mathematics 111, 112, 211, and 212 and one upper-division mathematics course approved by the student’s adviser.
  3. Strongly recommended, but not required: Physics 351, 411, and 442, and a foreign language.

For the student contemplating medical school, secondary school teaching, or engineering:

  1. Physics 100, 200, 311, 321, 331, 332, 342, 470.
  2. Mathematics 111, 112, 211, and 212.

Physics 100 - General Physics I

Full course for one year. Fall semester: calculus-based introduction to the classical mechanics of particles and systems—kinematics, laws of motion, conservation principles, rotational dynamics, oscillators, gravitation. Spring semester: electricity and magnetism, optics, and other topics at the discretion of the instructor. Corequisite: Mathematics 111 or equivalent. Lecture-conference-laboratory.

Physics 200 - General Physics II

Full course for one year. Fall semester: AC circuits, damped and driven vibrations, coupled oscillators, waves. Related mathematical methods are introduced: complex numbers, ordinary differential equations, linear algebra, and Fourier analysis. Weekly laboratories provide an introduction to basic electronics, from filters and voltage dividers to transistors and operational amplifiers. Spring semester: thermal physics, modern physics—introduction to special relativity and quantum mechanics, with applications to atomic, nuclear, and particle physics, and condensed matter, as time permits. Weekly laboratories include an introduction to Mathematica, the Millikan oil drop experiment, measurement of the speed of light, determination of Planck’s constant, the charge-to-mass ratio of the electron, and blackbody radiation. Prerequisites: Physics 100; Mathematics 111 (or equivalent) and 112; Mathematics 211-212 should be taken concurrently. First-year students who have successfully completed the equivalent of Physics 100 at the college level may petition the physics department to take Physics 200 in their first year. The petition must offer evidence of proficiency in calculus-based electricity and magnetism. Lecture-conference-laboratory.

Physics 311 - Classical Mechanics I

Full course for one semester. Careful examination of the foundations and limitations of Newtonian mechanics leads to development of the Lagrangian formulation, variational principles, and Hamiltonian mechanics. Applications to the motion of rigid bodies, systems of coupled oscillators, and celestial mechanics are treated as time permits. Prerequisite: Physics 200. Lecture.

Physics 321 - Electrodynamics I

Full course for one semester. Electrostatics and magnetostatics in vacuum and in matter, electromagnetic induction, force and energy in electrodynamics, Maxwell’s equations. Mathematical methods introduced include multivariable calculus and the solution of partial differential equations by separation of variables. Prerequisite: Physics 200. Lecture.

Physics 322 - Electrodynamics II

Full course for one semester. A continuation of Physics 321, this course emphasizes time-varying electric and magnetic fields. Topics include radiation from point charges and dipoles; propagation of electromagnetic plane waves in vacuum and in matter; reflection, refraction, and dispersion; and the relativistic formulation of electrodynamics. Prerequisite: Physics 321. Lecture.

Physics 323 - Optics

Full course for one semester. Theories of light, from the 17th century to the present. Electromagnetic theory and the modern photon picture. Applications of geometrical optics, including lenses, prisms, polarizers, wave plates; reflection and refraction. Huygens’ Principle, Fermat’s Principle, diffraction and holography, introduction to quantum optics. Prerequisite: Physics 200. Lecture-laboratory. Not offered 2009-10.

Physics 331 - Advanced Laboratory I

Full course for one semester. A study of advanced electronics and computer-assisted data acquisition and analysis intended to provide the student with a basis for understanding and designing laboratory systems used in contemporary experimental physics. Topics include operational amplifiers, filters, oscillators, logic circuits, and computer interfacing and analysis using a LabVIEW system. Prerequisite: Physics 200. Lecture-laboratory.

Physics 332 - Advanced Laboratory II

Full course for one semester. Guided and independent experimental investigations of physical phenomena using research-style measurement techniques. Prerequisite: Physics 331. Lecture-laboratory.

Physics 342 - Quantum Mechanics I

Full course for one semester. An introduction to quantum theory, beginning with the Schrödinger equation and the statistical interpretation of the wave function. One-dimensional applications, including the infinite square-well, the harmonic oscillator, and scattering; in three dimensions, the theory of angular momentum, central potentials, and the hydrogen atom; time-independent perturbation theory, spin, identical particles, and the Pauli exclusion principle. In general, this course concentrates on exact solutions to artificial problems, in contrast to Quantum Mechanics II, which develops approximate solutions to real problems. Prerequisite: Physics 200. Lecture.

Physics 351 - Thermal Physics

Full course for one semester. Examines the essentials of probability and statistics, the kinetic theory of gases, statistical mechanics, temperature, equations of state, heat, internal energy, entropy, reversibility, and distribution functions. Prerequisite: Physics 200. Lecture.

Physics 362 - Solid State Physics

Full course for one semester. Crystalline lattice structures, vibrational modes, and electronic band theory are explored and used to explain the observed electrical, thermal, optical, and magnetic properties of solids. Prerequisite: Physics 200. Lecture.

Physics 363 - Molecular Biophysics

Full course for one semester. The course will cover the physics of measurement techniques for studying the most significant intermolecular interactions of synaptic transmission. An introduction to the biology of neurons will be provided. Measurement techniques such as evanescent wave microscopy, confocal microscopy, X-ray diffraction, fluorescence resonance energy transfer, and Raman and infrared spectroscopy will be explained in terms of the physics of the experiment and its implementation. A clear idea of how these measurements inform the models of cellular processes such as exocytosis as well as the atomic-level models of neuromolecular structure and function will be presented. The course will include demonstrations of selected measurement techniques such as total internal reflection microscopy, infrared absorption, and crystallography. Prerequisites: Physics 100, Physics 200, Mathematics 211 and 212. Lecture. Not offered 2009-10.

Physics 364 - Selected Topics of Astrophysical Interest

Full course for one semester. Specific topics vary from year to year, drawn principally from the following areas: internal constitution, evolution, and death of stars; structure of galaxies; interstellar medium; radiative processes; and cosmology. Prerequisite: Physics 200. Lecture. Not offered 2009-10.

Physics 366 - Elementary Particles

Full course for one semester. Introduction to the theory and phenomenology of elementary particle physics. The course includes a semihistorical overview, followed by relativistic kinematics, the Dirac equation, evaluation of simple Feynman diagrams, and a survey of the strong, electromagnetic, and weak interactions from the perspective of gauge theory. Prerequisite: Physics 200. Lecture-conference.

Physics 367 - Scientific Computation

Full course for one semester. This course covers numerical and laboratory methods for students of science. The primary focus will be on topics in physics, chemistry, and biology. The course begins with the history of scientific computation, moves on to methodology and specific algorithms, and closes with individual elective projects to be approved by the instructor. Basic programming will not be taught; the course will concentrate on scientific, not programmatic, aspects, so students must be able to write programs largely on their own. Specific topics include differential equations, matrix methods, signal and image processing, quantum-theoretic models, astrophysical models, and nonlinear and chaotic systems. Prerequisites: a sophomore-level course in one of the sciences and experience with a sufficiently strong computer language, such as Pascal or C. Lecture-conference-laboratory. Cross-listed as Biology 367.

Physics 411 - Classical Mechanics II

Full course for one semester. A continuation of Physics 311; specific content varies from year to year. Prerequisite: Physics 311. Lecture-conference.

Physics 414 - Classical Field Theory

Full course for one semester. A modern account of the classical dynamics of systems with infinitely many degrees of freedom. Treats both general principles and more specialized techniques appropriate to the analysis of topics of exceptional current interest (solitons, gauge fields). Although primarily for physicists, the course contains much material of interest to mathematicians. A good command of classical mechanics, linear algebra, and the theory of differential equations is assumed. Lecture. Not offered 2009-10.

Physics 442 - Quantum Mechanics II

Full course for one semester. A continuation of Physics 342; specific content varies from year to year. The emphasis is on approximation techniques (time-independent and time-dependent perturbation theory, WKB approximation, variational principles, Born approximation), with applications to atoms, molecules, and solids, the quantum theory of radiation, and formal scattering theory. Prerequisite: Physics 342. Lecture.

Physics 470 - Thesis and Physics Seminar

Full course for one year. The thesis is independent work on an original problem and is intended as an introduction to research. In addition to the thesis project itself, all seniors are expected to participate in a weekly seminar in which various topics from the current literature are discussed.

Physics 481 - Special Topics in Physics

One-half or full course for one semester. Readings and laboratory work of an advanced character. Students will choose a field in which they are interested; they are expected to become familiar with the special instruments and methods of that discipline. Open only to juniors and seniors, by consent of the instructor. Lecture-conference.