Physics

Undergraduate

Are you interested in making the next generation of solar cells or using nanotechnology to make computers faster and smaller? Or do you want to program computers to predict how fluids flow or mix? Learning about physics will position you to gain a deeper understanding of how the world works and appreciate what others might miss.

Program Overview

Physics changes Everything!

If you like to think about why the world works the way it does, physics might be the right subject for you. If you want to understand how technology works and design the next innovations, physics has some of the answers. If you want to make contributions to the biggest open scientific questions of our generation, physics can help! We can't explain the entire universe, but we can provide you with the tools you need to find some of the answers on your own.

Our personal and award-winning teaching and emphasis on cutting-edge research opportunities for all students make this possible.

Alum Connections

Stories from Physics Alums

Casey Roepke ’21

she/her

Laura Congreve Hunter ’17

Selecting courses in your first year

Entering students considering a major in physics are strongly urged to take PHYS-110 in the first year. Delaying PHYS-110 and PHYS-201 to the second year is possible, but not recommended because it limits opportunities for advanced electives or honors work.

If you have completed AP, IB or A Level courses, please review the tables below to find the correct course for you. Some introductory physics courses beyond physics 100 and 110 require math and physics prerequisites.

Math Courses

Course Name Score Needed Appropriate Physics Course
AP BC Calculus Score of 3 Physics 110
AP BC Calculus Score of 4 or 5 Physics 110 and/or 201
AP AB Calculus Score of 4 or 5 Physics 110
IB Calculus Score of 6+ Physics 110 and/or 201

Physics Courses

Course Name Score Needed Appropriate Physics Course
AP C Mechanics Score of 4 or 5 Physics 201
AP C E&M Score of 4 or 5 Physics 205 and/or 210
IB Physics Score of 3-­‐5 Physics 110
IB Physics Score of 6+ Discuss with department
A Level Grade of A or B Physics 110 and/or 201

Placement Exams

If you have not completed the above courses or have not received the score or grade needed but feel you have a strong calculus and physics background, please review the tables below to find the correct course for you.

The scores below refer to the Mathematics Assessment exam and the Physics Assessment exams (email the department to request the Physics 110/201 placement exam). You will have one week to complete these open book exams. Please note that all assessments must be turned in by the first day of class.

Course Math Assessment Physics Assessment
Physics 110 Calculus, score of 4+  
Physics 201   Physics 110
Physics 205 and/or 210   Physics 201

Courses and Requirements

Learning Goals

Graduating physics majors will be prepared for graduate work in the sciences and engineering, or a wide variety of careers in teaching, industry, or public service. Students will be prepared to:

  • Apply their physical reasoning and analytic skills to tackle complex problems in a variety of academic, research, and innovative work environments; and alternative careers.
  • Synthesize and apply sophisticated mathematical and physical models to complex, real-world problems.
  • Apply knowledge and skills gained in the physics major toward broader goals, including social issues, environmental concerns, and daily problems.
  • Engage in self-directed learning by consulting the necessary resources and building knowledge of their own strengths and weaknesses. 
  • Know when and how to quickly address challenging questions.
  • Be a strong, confident physics major who embarks in the world and can apply their analytical skills to quickly address questions when appropriate and think deeply and at length when needed.

Physics majors will develop strong problem solving skills. Students will:

  • Be able to plan an effective approach to challenging problems.
  • Use proportional, conceptual, analytical, numerical, computational, and qualitative reasoning, distinguishing when each is appropriate.
  • Learn to critically evaluate their assumptions, methodology and results, and to revise their approach as needed.
  • Develop cooperative group problem solving skills, engaging in effective communication, planning and evaluation.
  • Develop confidence and skills to independently solve complex problems.
  • Develop the metacognitive skills required to engage in self-assessment of their own strategies and approaches.

Physics majors will develop strong technical skills. Students will:

  • Develop strong mathematical skills required to address technical scientific problems.
  • Gain hands-on experimental skills, including common methodology, experimental design, troubleshooting, analysis, and interpretation.
  • Acquire computational skills, including numerical methods, implementation of models, visualization of results, and analysis of data sets.
  • Understand how to read, interpret, and evaluate technical articles, and how to perform literature searches.

Physics majors will develop strong communication skills. Students will:

  • Clearly articulate complex technical ideas in speech in preparation for both formal and informal scientific settings.
  • Clearly articulate complex technical ideas in writing in preparation for both formal and informal scientific settings.
  • Be able to explain complex science to the general public.
  • Communicate effectively in collaborative group settings.
  • Effectively ask and respond to questions with confidence. 

Physics majors will develop an appreciation for how physics and science enriches their experience of the world. Students will:

  • Understand the technical role of science in the modern world; for example, applications of scientific reasoning to policy decisions, technological innovations, etc.
  • Consider the complex intersection of science and culture, including public opinion, power structures, and changing norms.
  • Appreciate how science progresses as an evolving, self-correcting process.
  • Specifically, appreciate the historical and philosophical developments in physics.
  • Develop an appreciation of physics as a discipline that develops quantitative models, based on foundational principles, resulting in specific predictions to be tested by experiment, to describe the world.
  • Appreciate the relationship of physics to the other sciences, and the interdisciplinary nature of modern challenges.

Requirements for the Major

A minimum of 37 credits:

As a prerequisite for PHYS-110:
MATH-101
Calculus I
PHYS-110Force, Motion, and Energy 14
As a prerequisite for PHYS-201:
MATH-102
Calculus II
PHYS-201Electromagnetism 14
PHYS-205Introduction to Mathematical Methods for Scientists4
PHYS-210Waves and Optics4
PHYS-250Quantum Mechanical Phenomena4
PHYS-231Techniques of Experimental Physics 21
Students must also take two of:8
PHYS-315
Analytical Mechanics
PHYS-325
Electromagnetic Theory
PHYS-326
Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics
Laboratory Work:
PHYS-220Intermediate Lab in Physics4
or PHYS-308 Electronics
or PHYS-311 Computational Physics Laboratory
And 4 additional credits of laboratory work from:4
PHYS-295
Independent Study
PHYS-295P
Independent Study with Practicum
PHYS-395
Independent Study
PHYS-395P
Independent Study with Practicum
PHYS-220 or PHYS-308, if you didn't count it already above
or laboratory courses offered at other institutions, as arranged on a case-by-case basis. 3
Total Credits37
1

Students who can demonstrate proficiency in one or both introductory courses by taking placement exams administered by the department may begin their physics study at the appropriate level but must still complete 37 credits of college-level physics courses for the major

2

 PHYS-231 should be taken during the first or second year

3

As arranged on a case-by-case basis

4

PHYS-336 (offered in alternate years) is recommended, as is MATH-211.

Additional Specifications

  • Course substitutions for the above requirements will be allowed on a case-by-case basis where it makes sense for a student’s academic goals.
  • Up to 4 credits of PHYS-295P or PHYS-395P may be earned through summer research, following college guidelines for awarding PHYS-295P/PHYS-395P credit. Note that PHYS-295P and PHYS-395P credit must be arranged with the department before the summer research experience begins; typically, a single eight to ten-week summer research program will account for no more than 2 credits of PHYS-295P or PHYS-395P.
  • Normally, no more than 12 credits of PHYS-295, PHYS-295P, PHYS-395, or PHYS-395P will count towards the major.
  • Physics majors are also encouraged to take CHEM-150.
  • MATH-203 (Calculus III – multivariate calculus) and MATH-211 (linear algebra), while not required, are recommended for those students planning to take advanced physics courses or to pursue graduate study. MATH-302 (complex analysis) and MATH-333 (differential equations) are also recommended for students planning to pursue graduate study in physics or engineering.
  • Students planning to pursue graduate study in physics are encouraged to take at least one graduate-level course in physics at UMass.
  • For advising purposes, several Plans of Study are available in the physics suite showing recommended sequences of course-taking to complete the major.

Requirements for the Minor

A minimum of 16 credits:

Normally, courses for the minor consist of: 1
PHYS-201Electromagnetism4
Any three of:12
PHYS-205
Introduction to Mathematical Methods for Scientists
PHYS-210
Waves and Optics
PHYS-250
Quantum Mechanical Phenomena
PHYS-308
Electronics
Total Credits16
1

Other combinations of courses are also possible with permission of the department chair. Courses must be at or above the 200 level in Physics

Course Advice

Getting Started in Physics

Entering students considering a major in physics are strongly urged to take PHYS-110 in the first year. While it is possible to complete the major by taking PHYS-110 and PHYS-201 as late as the second year, such a program is not recommended because this delay limits the student’s opportunities for advanced electives or honors work.

Introductory Courses and Distribution Requirements

PHYS-100PHYS-150 is a non-calculus introductory course sequence in physics, appropriate for students in the life sciences and for students with a general, nonprofessional interest in physics. This sequence satisfies the physics requirements of medical school.

PHYS-110PHYS-201 is a calculus-based introductory course sequence in physics, appropriate for students intending to major in a physical science. To major in physics, a student must complete PHYS-201 by the end of the sophomore year. A student with excellent preparation in physics may take a departmental placement exam to place out of one or both of these introductory courses. Any 200 or 300-level 4-credit physics course will then count for distribution in physics. PHYS-110 and PHYS-201 do not cover the full range of topics on the MCAT syllabus; the PHYS-100 and PHYS-150 sequence has a better coverage of these topics.

Course Offerings

PHYS-100 Foundations of Physics

Fall. Credits: 4

This course studies a variety of topics in physics unified by the physical notions of force, energy, and equilibrium. Mathematics is used at the level of geometry, proportion, and dimensional analysis. Topics, drawn from the MCAT syllabus, include geometrical optics, time, oscillation, statics, elasticity, conservation of energy, and fluids.

Applies to requirement(s): Math Sciences
D. Debu
Coreq: PHYS-100L.

PHYS-104 Renewable Energy

Not Scheduled for This Year. Credits: 4

We will examine the feasibility of converting the entire energy infrastructure of the US from one that is dependent on fossil fuels to one that utilizes mostly renewable sources of energy. We will examine the potential scale of energy production and the associated costs, natural resource requirements and land usage needs for both renewables, such as solar, wind and biofuel, and non-renewables, such as coal, natural gas, petroleum and nuclear. By applying extensive use of basic algebra and an elementary understanding of the physical processes underpinning each energy technology, we will arrive at a number of urgent conclusions about the challenges facing our energy infrastructure.

Crosslisted as: ENVST-104
Applies to requirement(s): Math Sciences
A. Arango

PHYS-110 Force, Motion, and Energy

Fall and Spring. Credits: 4

Studies the mechanics of material objects. Topics include Newton's laws, projectile motion, circular motion, momentum, kinetic and potential energy, angular momentum, gravitation, and oscillations. This course is appropriate for students intending to major in a physical science.

Applies to requirement(s): Math Sciences
K. Nordstrom, S. Smith
Prereq: MATH-101 or equivalent. Coreq: PHYS-110L.
Advisory: Knowledge of calculus as demonstrated by MATH-101 or equivalent.

PHYS-132 Engineering for Everyone

Not Scheduled for This Year. Credits: 4

Engineers change the world we live in every day by developing technologies that influence nearly every aspect of our lives. In this course, we will study how engineered things shape the world we live in. Students will engage in a team-based, hands-on engineering design project, from brainstorming solutions to a contemporary problem, to building, testing, and iterating design solutions. In the process, students will learn basic programming and fabrication skills. We will reflect together on the ethics of engineering design, and leave with a more nuanced understanding of the ways technology and society interact. Who decides what technologies matter? What is a "good" technological solution, and for whom is it "good"?

Crosslisted as: COMSC-132
Applies to requirement(s): Math Sciences
The department
Advisory: This course has no prerequisites and is recommended for all students interested in engineering and technology.
Notes: Students interested in continuing with the Engineering Nexus are strongly recommended to take the course.

PHYS-150 Phenomena of Physics

Spring. Credits: 4

This course studies a variety of topics in physics, drawn from the MCAT syllabus, including thermodynamics, acoustics, wave optics, electricity, magnetism, and nuclear phenomena. As in Physics 100, the applicable mathematics is geometry, proportion, and dimensional analysis.

Applies to requirement(s): Math Sciences
D. Debu
Prereq: PHYS-100 or PHYS-110. Coreq: PHYS-150L.

PHYS-201 Electromagnetism

Fall and Spring. Credits: 4

Topics include: electromagnetism, emphasizing fields and energy; electrostatics; electric circuits; magnetism; induction; and electromagnetic radiation. Additional topics chosen according to the interests of the class and instructor.

Applies to requirement(s): Math Sciences
D. Debu
Prereq: PHYS-110 and MATH-102. Coreq: PHYS-201L.

PHYS-205 Introduction to Mathematical Methods for Scientists

Fall. Credits: 4

Topics include Taylor series, complex numbers, partial differentiation, multiple integration, selected topics in linear algebra and vector calculus, ordinary differential equations, and Fourier series. The course includes a weekly computational lab using Python, in addition to a traditional emphasis on analytic solutions.

Applies to requirement(s): Math Sciences
S. Smith
Prereq: PHYS-201 (or concurrent enrollment with permission). Coreq: PHYS-205L.

PHYS-210 Waves and Optics

Fall. Credits: 4

A comprehensive treatment of wave phenomena, particularly light, leading to an introductory study of quantum mechanics. Topics include wave propagation, polarization, interference and interferometry, diffraction, and special relativity.

Applies to requirement(s): Math Sciences
M. Kaur
Prereq: Electromagnetism (PHYS-201) and Intro to Math Methods (PHYS-205) or concurrent enrollment in PHYS-205 with permission.

PHYS-220 Intermediate Lab in Physics

Spring. Credits: 4

This lab-based course is an introduction to modern, investigative, experimental physics. The course is intended as a bridge between the structured introductory lab experience and independent research. In addition to exploring key physical phenomena crucial to modern understandings and gaining familiarity with modern experimental apparatus and techniques, students complete exploratory projects of various sorts and then extended, multi-week experimental projects, participating in experimental design, construction, debugging and implementation. Students will present and interpret their experimental results and develop follow-up questions which they will answer experimentally. This course will introduce students to scientific communications skills and is speaking- and writing-intensive.

Applies to requirement(s): Meets No Distribution Requirement
Other Attribute(s): Speaking-Intensive, Writing-Intensive
N. Abraham
Prereq: PHYS-201.

PHYS-231 Techniques of Experimental Physics

Fall and Spring. Credits: 1

Provides training in the techniques employed in the construction of scientific equipment.

Applies to requirement(s): Meets No Distribution Requirement
C. Trimble
Restrictions: This course is limited to Physics majors.; This course is open to juniors and seniors
Notes: 1 meeting (2 hours) for 3 weeks. Credit/no credit grading.

PHYS-250 Quantum Mechanical Phenomena

Spring. Credits: 4

This course provides an introduction to quantum phenomena and quantum mechanics. Topics include relativistic dynamics, blackbody radiation, and wave properties of matter. The Uncertainty Principle, Schrodinger's Equation, simple harmonic oscillators and the hydrogen atom are studied in depth, with emphasis on angular momentum, electron spin and the Pauli Exclusion Principle.

Applies to requirement(s): Math Sciences
N. Abraham
Prereq: PHYS-205 and PHYS-210.

PHYS-290 Advanced Laboratory Practicum

Spring. Credits: 1 - 8

This course is a hands-on practicum, intended to introduce students to the practice of modern physics research. Depending on student interest, topics include external research seminars by practitioners in the field, training in oral and written scientific communication, presentation and interpretation of research results, scientific modeling, and hands-on experimental skills. Research projects are an integral part of this course; credit will be apportioned in relation to the intensity of the project.

Applies to requirement(s): Meets No Distribution Requirement
Other Attribute(s): Speaking-Intensive, Writing-Intensive
K. Nordstrom
Instructor permission required.
Notes: Repeatable for credit.

PHYS-295 Independent Study

Fall and Spring. Credits: 1 - 4

The department
Instructor permission required.

PHYS-295P Independent Study with Practicum

Fall and Spring. Credits: 1 - 4

The department
Instructor permission required.

PHYS-308 Electronics

Not Scheduled for This Year. Credits: 4

This course is a study of electrical circuits and components with emphasis on the underlying physical principles; solid-state active devices with applications to simple systems such as linear amplifiers; feedback-controlled instrumentation; and analog and digital computing devices.

Applies to requirement(s): Math Sciences
K. Aidala
Prereq: PHYS-150 or PHYS-201.
Notes: Meetings combine lecture and hands-on lab

PHYS-311 Computational Physics Laboratory

Fall. Credits: 4

Computers bring a new dimension to the mathematical theories of physics, including new methods of visualization and new ways to explore theory through computer experiments. This laboratory course will combine mathematics, physics, and computation in projects that make essential use of all three together. Topics from various subfields of physics will be packaged into self-contained modules for exploration through the use of high-level computational tools.

Applies to requirement(s): Math Sciences
S. Smith
Prereq: PHYS-205.

PHYS-315 Analytical Mechanics

Spring. Credits: 4

Newton's great innovation was the description of the world by differential equations, the beginning of physics as we know it. This course studies Newtonian mechanics for a point particle in 1, 2, and 3 dimensions, systems of particles, rigid bodies, and the Lagrangian and Hamiltonian formulations.

Applies to requirement(s): Math Sciences
K. Nordstrom
Prereq: PHYS-205.

PHYS-325 Electromagnetic Theory

Spring. Credits: 4

This course presents the development of mathematical descriptions of electric and magnetic fields; study of interactions of fields with matter in static and dynamic situations; mathematical description of waves; and development of Maxwell's equations with a few applications to the reflection and refraction of light and microwave cavities.

Applies to requirement(s): Math Sciences
S. Smith
Prereq: PHYS-205 and PHYS-210.

PHYS-326 Statistical Mechanics and Thermodynamics

Fall. Credits: 4

This course presents thermodynamic and statistical descriptions of many-particle systems. Topics include classical and quantum ideal gases with applications to paramagnetism; black-body radiation; Bose-Einstein condensation; and the Einstein and Debye solid; the specific heat of solids.

Applies to requirement(s): Math Sciences
K. Nordstrom
Prereq: Quantum Mechanical Phenomena (PHYS-250) and Intro to Math Methods (PHYS-205) or permission from department.

PHYS-336 Quantum Mechanics

Not Scheduled for This Year. Credits: 4

This course is an introduction to formal quantum theory: the wave function and its interpretation, observables and linear operators, matrix mechanics and the uncertainty principle; solutions of one-dimensional problems; solutions of three-dimensional problems and angular momentum; and perturbative methods.

Applies to requirement(s): Math Sciences
The department
Prereq: PHYS-250.

PHYS-390 Advanced Laboratory Practicum

Spring. Credits: 1 - 8

This course is a hands-on practicum, intended to introduce students to the practice of modern physics research. Depending on student interest, topics include external research seminars by practitioners in the field, training in oral and written scientific communication, presentation and interpretation of research results, scientific modeling, and hands-on experimental skills. Research projects are an integral part of this course; credit will be apportioned in relation to the intensity of the project.

Applies to requirement(s): Meets No Distribution Requirement
Other Attribute(s): Speaking-Intensive, Writing-Intensive
K. Nordstrom
Instructor permission required.
Prereq: 16 credits in Physics.
Notes: Repeatable for credit.

PHYS-395 Independent Study

Fall and Spring. Credits: 1 - 8

The department
Instructor permission required.

PHYS-395P Independent Study with Practicum

Fall and Spring. Credits: 1 - 8

The department
Instructor permission required.

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