Majors & Programs

 

Physics

Physics is the avenue used to explore the vast range of nature, from sub-nuclear particles to the most distant galaxies. It is the discipline that deals with the most fundamental aspects of our universe:

  • the properties of atoms, nuclei, and elementary particles
  • the nature of fundamental forces of interaction between these particles
  • the collective behavior of atoms in solids, liquids, and gases.

Physics also provides a basis to understand the everyday world around us, from lasers to magnets, and from nuclear reactors to biological systems.

Why Major in Physics?

Discoveries involving physics and astronomy are being made today at a rapid pace by scientists whose primary training has been in physics. The most notable are rewarded each year with a Nobel Prize—as in the discovery of:

  • Nature of Graphene
  • X-ray Astronomy
  • Accelerating Expansion of the Universe
  • Advances in Particle Physics Theory

Major advances in other fields of scientific research and technology have also come from physicists:

  • The Structure of DNA
  • Semiconductors and Computer Chips
  • The World Wide Web
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Meteorology
  • New Materials and Alloys

What can I do with a Physics Major?

An undergraduate program in physics can provide you with the foundation for a wide variety of careers. Some students decide to pursue a master’s degree or a Ph.D. Other students pursue graduate studies in sciences other than physics. Still others have chosen to attend law school, medical school, or business school. Alternatively, some students prefer to work in various laboratories in the aerospace industry, in optical or computer companies, or in government agencies. The common factor in all of these is that the physics degree provides the basis for critical thinking and problem-solving that is needed in many professions.

Other careers that physics graduates have chosen include:

  • Astronaut
  • Astronomer/Astrophysicist
  • Computer Scientist
  • Earth Scientist
  • Engineer
  • Financial Analyst
  • Mathematician
  • Medical Researcher
  • Oceanographer
  • Patent Attorney
  • Spacecraft Designer
  • Teacher/Professor

Physics at Washington University

Our primary goal is to provide you with an outstanding educational foundation for a productive, creative, and satisfying career in physics or related fields. The physics department is an international leader in three thrust areas: astrophysics and astroparticle physics, biophysics, and solid state physics and materials.

Bachelor’s Degree Program

Washington University offers a Bachelor of Arts degree (A.B.) in Physics. There is also an honors program for the A.B. in Physics. This program leaves considerable room for a wide range of electives.

The Major: Core Physics Requirements

The core of our physics program is a sequence of advanced courses following the introductory two-semester physics sequence. A total of 21 advanced units are required in these areas:

  • Mechanics—the science of motion
  • Electricity and Magnetism—electromagnetic theory
  • Quantum Mechanics
  • Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics

In addition to these theoretical courses, Physical Measurements Laboratory and one of the following four possible advanced laboratory courses are required:

  • Electronics Laboratory
  • Optics Laboratory
  • Radiochemistry Laboratory
  • Biophysics Laboratory

Programs Tailored to Your Interests

Beyond this core, programs can be tailored to the strengths and interests of each student. In physics and mathematics, the entry courses depend on your background and any college-level credit you may have earned during high school.

The typical mathematics courses taken by physics majors include differential equations, advanced calculus, and matrix and linear algebra. The physics department offers advanced courses in mathematical methods needed in theoretical physics. We advise students to take additional mathematics courses, beyond the requirements. Three courses from a list of chemistry and computer science courses are also required.

Some students plan to have a double major, a major and a minor, or various other combinations. As a Washington University student, you will have access to the full range of classes offered at the University.

Advising

Each entering student is assigned an academic advisor. You may declare yourself a physics major at any time, but preferably no later than your fourth semester. When you declare a physics major, you will be assigned an advisor in the physics department. You are required to consult with your advisor each semester as you plan your program for the following semester; however, you will find that the advisor is often available to help in other ways, too. For example, your advisor will know of particular courses and instructors in many other departments and will often suggest courses you might wish to consider for your distribution requirements. Your advisor is especially important as you plan to apply to graduate or professional school.

Research

Many students wish to gain some research experience. Here again, your advisor can be of assistance. Working in one of these groups is an excellent way to see how progress is being made in physics. The broad experimental research areas in the Department of Physics are:

  • Solid State and Materials
  • Medical Applications of Ultrasonics and Nuclear Magnetic Resonance
  • Experimental High Energy Astrophysics (x-rays, gamma-rays, cosmic rays and neutrinos)
  • Cosmic Dust
  • Biological and Biomedical Physics

In theoretical physics, the main areas of research are:

  • Nuclear Physics
  • Elementary Particles and Field Theory
  • Cosmology and Astrophysics
  • Solid State and Materials
  • Biophysics and Neuroscience

McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences

  • Cosmic Ray Astrophysics: Identification of the different types of nuclear particles that bombard the Earth, leading to a better understanding of their origin and acceleration. Research is carried out with instrumentation constructed here and launched on balloons and satellites.
  • Extraterrestrial Materials: Examination of samples brought back from the moon, collected in high-flying aircraft, or from meteorites that have landed on the Earth’s surface. The goal is a better understanding of formation and evolution of bodies in the solar system.
  • Cosmology: study of models beyond the standard model of Particle Physics and their observational consequences.
  • X-ray and Gamma Ray Astronomy: observation of high energy gamma rays from cosmic accelerators and from particle interactions using ground based and space borne telescopes; development of ground based and space borne X-ray and Gamma-Ray observatories.

Laboratory for Ultrasonics

Ultrasonic-based technologies can be used in a wide variety of applications. There is a strong collaboration with the Department of Cardiology at the School of Medicine, looking into non-invasive techniques for studying the properties of living tissue and for detecting heart defects. Another application is in the properties of new composite materials, used in the aerospace industry.

Laboratory for High Pressure Physics

This laboratory contains the equipment to synthesize crystalline and polycrystalline materials under high pressure/high temperature conditions and to study the change in the magnetic and superconducting properties of matter under the application of extremely high hydrostatic pressures.

Laboratory for Materials Physics

This laboratory is involved in basic and applied research in the fabrication, characterization, and application of new materials. It supports work that involves a wide network of collaboration with members of the faculty in physics, chemistry, and engineering, along with physicists and engineers at other universities and national X-ray and neutron diffraction facilities.

Examples of Recent Undergraduate Research

  • The Relationship of Third Heart Sound to Transmitral Flow
  • Determining Phase Diagrams of Transition-Metal Intermetallic Alloys
  • Superconductivity in Intermetallic Borocarbides
  • Mechanical Properties of Al- and Ti-based Metallic Glass and Nanocomposite Materials
  • Simulating Neutron Star Collisions on a Supercomputer
  • Summing Divergent Series Using Continued Exponentials

A Chance to Write, Publish, or Present

Undergraduate research provides valuable experience and frequently results in the opportunity to publish in a professional physics journal, or in the presentation of your findings at a physics conference.

The Minor in Physics

The physics department offers a minor for those who wish to study the fundamentals of physics but do not plan to pursue a physics major. For a minor, you complete the introductory and sophomore physics sequences, as well as one additional course at the advanced level.

The Minor in Biophysics

The physics department offers a minor for students interested in the methods and techniques of physics as applied to topics in the areas of biology and medicine. The program is of interest to the research oriented science major or pre-medicine student. For this minor, you complete the introductory physics sequence, two courses on biology/biomedical-related topics, and one laboratory course.

The Minor in Astrophysics

For students interested in astrophysics who do not major in physics, this requires the introductory physics sequence, the first sophomore quantum course, 312 Introduction to Astrophysics, and on more upper-level astrophysics course.

The department also offers a wide variety of courses directed primarily at non-physics students. In the past, courses have included:

  • Physics and Society
  • How Things Work
  • Astronomy
  • Awesome Ideas in Physics

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