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Physics & Astronomy

Exploring the Universe, from Quarks to the Cosmos

Overview   |   Meet An Earlhamite   |   Our Faculty   |   Pre-Engineering   |   Plan of Study   |   Courses  


The study of Physics and Astronomy not only contributes to students’ understanding of the physical environment, it also develops their abilities to reason analytically and to test hypotheses.

Students are involved in on-campus research with faculty as early as their first year. Many of these projects involve mathematicians, computer scientists, biochemists and chemists working on the same projects.

Research opportunities are off-campus, too. They include the Oak Ridge Science Semester and summer REU programs at Purdue University, the University of Michigan and the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris.

Earlham also offers a 3-2 program in engineering, in which a student takes foundational science and distribution courses at Earlham for three years, then spends an additional two years earning an engineering degree at an accredited engineering school.

More from the Physics and Astronomy Department:


Built in 2015, the Center for Science and Technology is home to the Physics Department. The facility includes all new classrooms, teaching and research labs, and computational facilities supporting and reinforcing our dedication to creative and transformative teaching.

A group of our students regularly attend the Biophysical Society annual meeting with 7,000 scientists from around the world.

Each year, about two-thirds of our graduates continue to graduate school in physics or related fields. Earlham ranks 64th nationally (in the 95th percentile) in the percentage of graduates receiving Ph.D.s in physics.

A Physics major prepares students for careers in secondary education, engineering or other technical disciplines, even medical or law school, scientific consulting, etc.

Meet An Earlhamite
Anna Schonwald
NASA Internship Confirms Career Path

Anna Schonwald ’16 attributes at least a part of her success at landing a prestigious internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to the confidence of knowing what she wanted.

Nick Archer
Power Delivery

Nick Archer ’16, a Physics major, was one of those kids who liked to take things apart.

Ezra Smith
Physics Major Values Integrity, Community

Ezra Smith ’15 grew up on a yoga ashram in the rural countryside of northeastern Pennsylvania and only realized how much that experience influenced him after he arrived at Earlham.

Our Faculty

Ray Hively
Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and Physics; Senior Physicist

Seth Hopper
Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy

John Howell
Professor Emeritus of Physics; Senior Physicist

Ellen Keister
Assistant Professor of Physics; 3-2 Engineering Program Liaison

Michael Lerner
Associate Professor of Physics

Alex Yeagle
Laborarory Manager

Roberta Cayard-Roberts
Administrative Assistant
Plan of Study

General Education Requirements

The Department offers five courses that fulfill the Quantitative Reasoning component of the Analytical Reasoning Requirement, PHYS 120, 125, 230, 235 and 360; and six courses that fulfill the Abstract Reasoning component of that requirement, PHYS 115,120, 125, 230, 235 and 360. The Department also offers occasional Earlham Seminars.

Planning Ahead

To maintain flexibility in their schedules, students who plan to major in Physics should consider beginning the introductory sequence in their first year. For students who have not previously taken calculus, this may require that they take MATH 180 during the fall of their first year. (It is possible to major in Physics beginning in the Sophomore year, but scheduling is then rather crowded.) It is important that students plan their programs early, after careful consultation with their academic advisers about career aims, to maximize their opportunities for off-campus study or for completing a minor in addition to their Physics Major.

Physicists or astronomers with a doctoral degree can do research in a field of their own choice — working in industrial, academic or government laboratories. Some industrial or government laboratories employ physicists or astronomers with a B.S. or M.S. degree in assisting capacities, and some of these help their employees in working toward higher degrees. Earlham's Physics Department supplies information to students about career opportunities and currently active fields of specialization. Students who are preparing for doctoral graduate work in physics should plan to take PHYS 350, 355, 360, 375, 425, 435, 445, 485 and 488, in addition to MATH 180, 280, 310, 320, 350 and CS 128.

Students planning careers as high school physics teachers should plan their programs carefully in consultation with both the Education and Physics faculty. In their course of study, they should include the introductory sequence and courses selected from PHYS 350, 355, 360, 375, 415, 425 and 445, and the necessary courses in Education.

The Major

  • PHYS 125 Analytical Physics I: Mechanics
  • PHYS 235 Analytical Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism, Optics and Waves
  • PHYS 345 Introduction to Modern Physics
  • PHYS 355 Advanced Physics Laboratory
  • PHYS/MATH 360 Mathematical Methods of Physics
  • PHYS 375 Thermal Physics OR
    PHYS 445 Introduction to Quantum Mechanics
  • PHYS 480 Senior Seminar
  • PHYS 488 Senior Capstone Experience
  • Two courses (or more if necessary for a total at least 6 credits) from other Physics courses
    numbered 300 – 480. Courses between 481 and 487 may be counted toward the Major
    with permission from the Department.

And these Mathematics courses:

  • MATH 180 Calculus A
  • MATH 280 Calculus B
  • MATH 320 Differential Equations
  • MATH 350 Multivariate Calculus

The Minor

  • PHYS 125 Analytical Physics I: Mechanics
  • PHYS 235 Analytical Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism, Optics and Waves
  • PHYS 345 Introduction to Modern Physics
  • One other Physics course numbered 300 or above


  • MATH 180 Calculus A
  • MATH 280 Calculus B

Professional Option Program: Engineering

Earlham's 3-2 Pre-Engineering Option provides a wonderful opportunity for students considering a career in engineering who want the experience of a broad, liberal arts education that is seldom available to students in engineering schools. By combining three years at Earlham with two years at an engineering school, students can emphasize the liberal arts as well as the technical aspects of their education.

The Earlham Pre-Engineering Program permits a student to complete the B.A. degree requirements at Earlham and the engineering requirements at a professional engineering school with the aim of becoming a practicing engineer in industry, government or at a university. Typically this type of program involves three years at Earlham studying fundamental science and the liberal arts, followed by two years of specialization at an affiliated engineering school. At the end of those five years, the student receives two degrees: a B.A. from Earlham in pre-engineering studies, and a B.S. from the engineering program. For more information about this opportunity, contact Assistant Professor of Physics Ellen Keister — the 3/2 Faculty Liaison.

Pre-Engineering requirements in the sciences depend on the engineering program to which the student transfers, but most programs have requirements such as these:

  • One year of Physics (PHYS 125, 235)
  • One year of Chemistry (usually CHEM 111, 331)
  • Mathematics through Differential Equations and Multivariate Calculus (MATH 180, 280, 320 and 350)
  • One semester of Computer Programming (CS 128)

Some programs include additional courses such as economics (required by Columbia) or additional courses in biology, chemistry or electronics (for students with particular interests such as biomedical or electrical engineering).


* Key

Courses that fulfill
General Education Requirements:

  • (A-AR) = Analytical - Abstract Reasoning
  • (A-QR) = Analytical - Quantitative
  • (D-D) = Diversity - Domestic
  • (D-I) = Diversity - International
  • (D-L) = Diversity - Language
  • (ES) = Earlham Seminar
  • (IE) = Immersive Experience
  • (RCH) = Research
  • (W) = Wellness
  • (WI) = Writing Intensive
  • (AY) = Offered in Alternative Year

Key to Course Numbering

Courses numbered in the 100s and 200s are aimed at first- and second-year students; courses numbered in the 300s and 400s are upper-level.

The second digit of the course number for Physics courses specifies its subfield within the discipline. Courses numbered #0# are courses of general interest; #1# courses (for example PHYS 115 or 415) are in astronomy; #2#, in mechanics; #3#, in electro-magnetism; #4#, in modern physics; #5#, laboratory-focused courses; #6#, mathematical physics; and #7#, thermal physics.

This course covers physics relevant for future world leaders, whether in business or politics, or for an informed electorate. There are many economic and political issues that involve high technology content. This course will cover the science behind global warming, energy issues, counter-terrorism, space exploration and many more pertinent topics.

Explore and discover the origin and evolution of the expanding universe that surrounds us, and the processes that created the “star dust” of which we are composed. Find out what really happens when you travel into a black hole and hear the latest discoveries from the Mars Rover! This course provides a descriptive study of the origin and evolution of the universe and the nature of the solar system, the stars and galactic systems. Lab. (A-QR)

How can we understand the complexities of motion? What determines the arc of a basketball free-throw, or how can we model blood pressure in the humans? This course develops concepts of force, momentum and energy and applies them to a variety of phenomena ranging from the motion of elementary particles to the motion of the planets. High school algebra and trigonometry are used. Lab. (A-AR, A-QR) (AY)

What dictates the complexities of motion? How can we use physic to understand energy issues, or control the path of a probe launched to rendezvous with Mars? This course develops concepts of force, momentum, energy and heat, and applies them to a variety of phenomena ranging from the motion of elementary particles to the motion of the planets. Lab. Co-requisite: MATH 180 or background in Calculus. (A-AR, A-QR)

*PHYS 150 EARLHAM SEMINAR (4 credits)
Offered for first-year students. Topics vary. (ES)

You can change the direction of a baseball’s motion by hitting it, but how do you curve light’s motion to form the image on your retina? How can you move a beam of electrons without touching them? This course extends concepts like force and energy to realms that we cannot experience by touch. This course investigates the nature of electrostatics, electrical currents, magnetism, waves and optics, as well as a few concepts from modern Physics. Lab. Prerequisite: PHYS 120. (A-AR, A-QR) (AY)

How is electricity created or lightning modeled? What is the fundamental nature of light? How can we use mirrors to create three-dimensional images? In this course, electrostatics, electromagnetism, electric and magnetic fields, waves and optics are treated using analytical techniques of calculus and vector analysis. Lab. Prerequisite: PHYS 125. Co-requisite: MATH 280. (A-AR, A-QR)

Few ideas stretch the imagination or challenge the intuition as much as Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. In this course, you’ll investigate special relativity, quantum Physics, atomic and nuclear Physics with elementary classical Physics as a foundation. In the study of special relativity, students will reason through the implications of Einstein’s postulate and find how the predictions of his theory can be put to experimental tests. Elementary quantum mechanics, on the other hand, will show how scientists have sometimes had to change their conceptual framework when confronted with phenomena that cannot fit into an earlier paradigm. Lab. Prerequisites: MATH 280 and PHYS 235.

This is a laboratory-oriented course dealing with analog and digital circuits. Circuit theory is developed for diodes, transistors, operational amplifiers and integrated circuits. These components are used to construct a range of devices, including power supplies, oscillators, amplifiers and logic circuits. Laboratory work will allow students to gain an operational understanding of these basic concepts. Skills debugging, circuit building, and reading circuit diagrams will be stressed. Lab. Prerequisites: PHYS 230 or 235. Also listed as CS 350. (AY)

Explores experimental techniques, such as programming and machining, associated with advanced undergraduate physics courses. Studying a wide range of physical phenomena, students will be exposed to a wide variety of experimental techniques. Emphasizing individual initiative and deep investigation, students will be able to direct their work to areas or questions of particular interest. Students develop skills in communicating scientific results in journal article format as well as through oral and poster presentations. Lab. Prerequisite: PHYS 345 and junior/senior standing or consent of the instructor. (RCH)

Applies mathematical techniques to the study of physical systems. Examines topics such as vector analysis, complex variables, Fourier series and boundary value problems. These topics are studied in the context of modeling and understanding physical systems. Students will see how individual techniques, once developed, can be applied to very broad classes of problems. This course develops skills in communicating scientific results in written form as well as in an oral presentation. Prerequisite: MATH 320. Corequisite: MATH 350. Also listed as MATH 360. (A-AR, A-QR, RCH)

PHYS 375 THERMAL PHYSICS (3 credits)
Examines basic concepts of thermodynamics such as internal energy, heat, work, temperature, reversibility and entropy. This course shows how the application of a few basic concepts from probability and statistics can elucidate a wide range of phenomena such as the kinetic theory of gases, osmotic pressure and changes in equilibrium states cause by variations in pressure or temperature. Quantum applications include Planck's theory of blackbody radiation and statistics for identical particles. Prerequisites: PHYS 345 and MATH 280. (AY)

Examines statics and dynamics of particles, rigid bodies and continuous media, along with Lagrangian mechanics and normal coordinates. Students will extend their ability to analyze mechanical systems through math techniques such as differential equations, Fourier series, and solutions to systems of linear equations. Approximation techniques are introduced for dealing with systems for which no analytical solution is possible. Prerequisites: PHYS 235, MATH 320, MATH 350, PHYS/MATH 360 or consent of the instructor. (AY)

The development and application of electromagnetic field theory. This course covers material from PHYS 235 in greater detail, deepening the level of application of mathematical approaches that are useful in a wide range of Physics subjects, such as divergence, curl and Fourier techniques. The core of the course, Maxwell’s equations, expresses the fundamental interrelationship between electric and magnetic phenomena, as well as radiation theory and an understanding of behavior of light. Prerequisites: PHYS 235, MATH 320, MATH 350, PHYS/MATH 360 or consent of the instructor. (AY)

An introduction to the techniques, problems and interpretation of quantum mechanics. The quantum conditions, Schroedinger's equation and other formulations are applied to the rectangular potential well, the harmonic oscillator and the hydrogen atom. Also considers perturbation theory, identical particles and multiparticle systems. Students will gain familiarity with quantum systems, and the implications of quantum theory. Mathematical skills such as integrating Gaussian functions and partial differential equations will be developed. Prerequisites: PHYS 345, MATH 320, MATH 350 or MATH 360. (AY)

PHYS 480 SENIOR SEMINAR (3 credits)
Students and faculty meet to discuss topics of current interest in physics. These topics focus either on some area of Physics or on an area in which Physics overlaps with other disciplines. Recent topics have included Cosmology and General Relativity, Solid-State Physics, and Computational Models in Biophysics. PHYS 480 may be counted toward the major more than once if the topic of the course is different. Prerequisite: PHYS 375 or PHYS 445, or permission of instructor.


PHYS 482 SPECIAL TOPICS (3 credits)
Selected topics determined by the instructor for upper-level study.


Collaborative research with faculty funded by the Ford/Knight Program.

PHYS 485 INDEPENDENT STUDY (1-3 credits)
An investigation of a specific problem or topic.

PHYS 486 PHYSICS RESEARCH (1-3 credits)
Qualified students engage in independent research under the direction of a faculty supervisor. The research is typically part of ongoing research projects which in recent years have included a study of X-ray emission from active galactic nuclei, vibrational modes of drumheads and the physics of ultrasound. Offered by special arrangement.

Majors must successfully complete comprehensive examinations during the Senior year. Offered both semesters.