Physics Department


Front of Physics Building Physics departments acquire their distinctive features from a variety of circumstances: from the scientific interests and personalities of the resident faculty, from the career objectives typical of the student population, from accidents of history, but most especially from the character of the institutions where they are situated. Reed College is not an institute of technology but a college of the liberal arts and sciences, and from this fundamental fact our physics department acquires a double mission. We serve the pre-professional needs of students who plan careers in physics or related disciplines (astrophysics, biophysics, engineering, computer science, oceanography, and environmental science, to name but a few), and who present themselves to us as physics majors; we further have a responsibility to serve the needs of students from other disciplines who bring to their study of physics a broader focus -- students alert to the fact that while the technological applications of physics have transformed profoundly both the world and our perception of it, the philosophical implications of some key developments in the history of the field have been even more unsettlingly profound. What is the place of Human and Mind in the universe? What does it mean to "explain" something, to "understand?" How is new knowledge acquired? Are limitations to knowledge implicit in the structure of the world? To what extent -- and, to that extent, why -- is mathematics the "language of Nature?" One cannot progress far into study of the history of ideas or toward the frontiers of modern thought without encountering the work of physicists. For this good reason, students of the sort who elect to attend Reed College frequently want to spend some time looking to the field close-up.

For students of both types we strive to offer a consistently thoughtful approach to physics, with emphasis upon points of deep principle and attention drawn to the limitations of present knowledge (for in those limitations lie creative opportunities and occasional glimpses of the future). We try, in short, to present an image of physics as a vibrantly living discipline in which the best is yet to come.

The Reed physics curriculum offers instruction in all the principal subject areas of classical and modern physics, including general relativity and the theory of fields, astrophysics and cosmology, elementary particle physics, and scientific computation. In addition to the traditional course offerings, the department regularly conducts classes in special topics of current interest to faculty members and students. The instructors in advanced courses frequently elect to work not from commercial texts but from materials written to serve the specific objectives of the course at hand. The library is, by any measure, exceptionally fine, and has been designed to support general reading and research in a wide assortment of specialized areas.

Research interests of the seven physics faculty members span a number of experimental and theoretical areas, including solid state physics, biophysics, astrophysics, elementary particles, quantum theory, relativity, optics, and mathematical physics. Individual faculty members are also active in the fields of artificial intelligence, computer simulation, and electronics. While thesis students often collaborate with faculty on research in their specialty areas, faculty traditionally encourage students to study topics that they themselves have selected. In addition, students are active participants in the weekly physics seminars -- familial events (preceded invariably by cookies, coffee, and conversation, and followed sometimes by dinner) which draw speakers from all over the American West and beyond. The seminars are concerned with topics of current research interest. Unlike those at a large university, however, ours are designed to be accessible to advanced undergraduates.

For a number of years, the department has been graduating more than a dozen physics majors (frequently closer to two dozen). These numbers, which would be large even at a major university, reflect a level of excitement and enthusiasm in the department that we are anxious to nourish and sustain. They allow us, moreover, to offer the greater diversity of advanced courses than can be found at most liberal arts colleges, and they give our majors a strong sense of peer support.

Our majors have been remarkably successful in obtaining summer internships at research centers within the United States as well as internationally. Reed routinely graduates more physics majors than practically any other small college in the country (see American Institute of Physics Data on Undergraduate Education). In recent years, roughly half of our majors have gone on to graduate school at research universities, including UC Berkeley, University of Colorado, Cornell, Princeton, Caltech, Harvard, University of Oregon, University of Washington, University of Wisconsin, and UCLA. The other half of our graduates take positions in industry and government, become high school physics teachers, go to medical and law school, or join the Peace Corps.