The stereotypical physicist is the mad scientist of bad science fiction movies–head lost in the clouds, uttering incomprehensible jargon, and dreaming up fantastic ideas and machines that never quite work as intended.

The Lafayette physics faculty do not fit this mold–our machines always work (but never have malevolent purposes). But the study of physics can be important to a wide variety of people, not just those who want to become physicists.

Physics is nothing less than the empirical, mathematical, and philosophical basis for all natural science and engineering. First and foremost, physics is about solving problems–problems of explaining how everything in the universe works; but, the physicist’s technique of translating a concrete situation into abstract terms that can be solved using mathematical tools is a skill of much value in all fields of scientific research and engineering–and in management, in business, in industry, and elsewhere.

About half of Lafayette physics majors go on to graduate study in physics or related fields, but the other half includes many who have gone on to careers as diverse as software development, medicine, president and CEO of major corporations, and Trustee of Lafayette College. A sampling of recent careers can be found here. All have found that their training in physics was good preparation for their eventual careers.

  • Engineers and other scientists will find the detailed study of particular areas of physics very helpful in understanding their major fields of study as physics provides an essential foundation for many areas of engineering.
  • Chemistry is in large measure an application of one particular area of physics- quantum mechanics- and our quantum mechanics sequence, Phys 215-216 and 351-451, will give chemists a rigorous understanding of the theoretical basis of chemical reactions. Our courses in thermal and solid state physics, Phys 335 and 424, complement and extend the study of physical chemistry and material science.
  • Geologists learn to analyze vibrations that travel through the Earth’s crust, among other things, and for this our course in vibrations and waves, Phys 218, can be very helpful. Phys 327, Advanced Mechanics, adds the study of nonlinear oscillations and provides a more rigorous examination of the combined effects of gravity and the rotation of the Earth. Nuclear physics, responsible for many phenomena that occur within rocks and for providing much of the heat that keeps the Earth’s core molten, is discussed in Phys 216.
  • The demarcation between electrical engineering and physics is becoming increasingly blurred, so much in fact, that several students in recent years have pursued majors in both subjects. Electrical and computer engineers, whose primary interest is in the design and construction of integrated circuits and solid state devices, will find quantum mechanics (Phys 215-216 and 351-451) very helpful since the operation of those devices is inherently quantum mechanical. Our treatment of thermal physics, Phys 335, investigates the critical dependence on temperature of processes that occur within these devices. Solid state physics, Phys 424, studies the structure and properties of the materials in detail. Electrical engineering students who seek a more in-depth, mathematically sophisticated understanding of electromagnetic processes will find it in our sequence Phys 342-442.
  • Chemical engineers, especially those whose interest is in material science, will find the sequence of courses in quantum mechanics (Phys 215-216 and 351-451) and in thermal physics (Phys 335) helpful for the same reasons that apply to chemists. Solid state physics (Phys 424) will be helpful if the materials of interest are solids.
  • Mechanical engineers who seek a rigorous understanding of vibrational properties of structures and materials will find that Phys 218 and 327 complement the dynamics courses available in the Mechanical Engineering department.

This description is intended to provide general information about the Department of Physics for students who would like to know more about us and our program. After you have read through this information, we invite you to sit down with any member of the physics faculty, or to call (610) 330-5212, to talk about your interests and abilities, and about your options both for further study in physics at Lafayette and for careers and graduate study in the field. You will find that we are more than willing to talk with you whether or not you have any interest in majoring in physics.

The courses taught in the department can be grouped into three categories: (i) introductory survey courses required of students in a variety of majors (Physics 111/112, 131/132/133, or 151/152); (ii) courses assuming less mathematics in the student’s background, focused on specific topics such as planetary science, cosmology or the physics of music, and designed primarily for non-science majors but open to all students (Phys 104, Phys 106, Phys 108); and (iii) upper level courses which have Physics 111/112, 121/122, or 131/132 as prerequisites.

The department prides itself on its ability to involve our majors, and occasionally students in engineering or other sciences, in undergraduate research at the cutting edge of physics. During the summer months, several faculty members employ student research assistants with grants from Lafayette’s EXCEL Scholars program, along with grants from outside agencies to individual faculty members.

To acquaint you with the research that is currently underway and to give you some sense of what is possible with the resources available to the department, we include a description of the facilities available within the department to be used by students in coursework and in research projects, and synopses of the research interests and activities of each faculty member in the department.

Several of our recent graduates have gone on to do outstanding work at prestigious graduate schools (Columbia, MIT, Chicago, Cornell, Brown). A listing of graduate schools and careers of physics graduates shows the diversity of options available.

Physics offers both A.B. and B.S. degrees. Minors in Physics are available to students with A.B. majors in all other fields, or with B.S. majors in Chemistry, Computer Science, Engineering, Geology, or Mathematics. To assist you in your selection of courses to meet the requirements of these programs, you will find here a listing of courses offered in the department, along with full descriptions; a list of curricular requirements for each degree; and standard course patterns for students entering each degree program at different points in their undergraduate careers.

Get to know us and your classmates better by joining the Physics Club