Physics is the fundamental science; it leads to our most basic understanding of the natural world and of human technological achievements.
The physics program at Middlebury is designed to integrate physics into the liberal arts curriculum, as well as to provide challenging courses and research opportunities for students majoring in physics. Courses and student research activities in astronomy are also part of the physics program. The Physics Department does not offer a minor.
Courses designed especially for nonscience students include PHYS 0155 (Introduction to the Universe), PHYS 0106 (Physics for Educated Citizens), selected offerings in winter term, and first year seminars. Students majoring in the sciences for premedical, pre-engineering, and other professional programs, and others who desire a more analytical approach to physics, usually select courses from the introductory physics sequence PHYS 0109, PHYS 0111, and PHYS 0110. In addition, they may elect more advanced courses at the 0200-level or above.
For those majoring in physics, we offer a broad range of courses that emphasize a variety of topics in physics while building both theoretical understanding and experimental skills. Middlebury physics majors apply their education in a wide variety of careers. Some pursue graduate work in physics and related fields; others find their physics degrees valuable in engineering, medicine, business, law, teaching, government service, and other pursuits. The physics program is designed to serve the needs of both those intending advanced study in physics and those for whom formal work in physics will end with the Middlebury degree.
The physics department encourages its majors to study abroad to gain experience at international research facilities, improve language proficiency, and pursue academic interests outside of physics. Students who study abroad, or in a 2-1-1-1 pre-engineering program, may be eligible to transfer one upper-level physics course per term off campus for the physics major. Transfer is contingent upon approval of the department chair, for a maximum of two transferred courses, of which only one may be an elective. Students should obtain this approval before studying off campus.
Physics majors interested in obtaining high school physics teaching certification should consult the education studies program as soon as possible, preferably no later than the middle of their sophomore year.
Required for the Major
The major program consists of the following:
- Eight required physics courses: PHYS 0109, PHYS 0110, PHYS 0111, PHYS 0201, PHYS 0202, PHYS 0212, PHYS 0301, and PHYS 0321
- A minimum of three PHYS electives
- A one-term senior project (PHYS 0704)
To be eligible for departmental honors, a student must also complete either a semester of senior thesis (PHYS 0705) or one additional elective beyond those required. Mathematics at least through the level of MATH 0122 is also required; this requirement may be satisfied either at Middlebury or through appropriate pre-college courses in calculus.
Electives must be chosen from physics courses at the 0200, 0300, or 0400 level, except that an upper-level physics course taken off campus or an advanced cognate course from another department at Middlebury (specifically, CHEM 0351 or CHEM 0355) may be used to satisfy one of the elective requirements. (For students who entered Middlebury in 2017-18 or 2018-19, CSCI 0202 and MATH 0335 also count as advanced cognate courses.) For students completing double majors, courses counted towards another major cannot also be counted as electives toward the physics major. Independent study courses such as PHYS 0500 may not be used for elective credit. In addition to recurring courses in spring and fall terms, PHYS courses that satisfy the elective requirement are occasionally offered during the winter term.
Prospective majors must begin the physics sequence no later than the sophomore year (typically no later than the third fall/spring term on campus). Starting in the first year allows more flexibility in the choice of courses and senior work and increases the feasibility of off-campus study. Students majoring in physics are advised to complete MATH 0122 (or equivalent) by the end of their first two regular terms. Students planning graduate work in physics or a related subject should elect as many as possible of PHYS 0302 (Electromagnetic Waves), PHYS 0330 (Analytical Mechanics), PHYS 0350 (Statistical Mechanics), and PHYS 0401 (Quantum Mechanics). In addition, MATH 0200 (Linear Algebra), MATH 0223 (Multivariable Calculus), and MATH 0225 (Topics in Linear Algebra and Differential Equations) are strongly recommended for those anticipating graduate study. Most physics majors will find computer programming skills through the level of CSCI 0201 extremely valuable.
The senior project (PHYS 0704) involves a significant piece of experimental or theoretical research to be completed in the final year at Middlebury. Topics in recent years have included work in the following areas:
- Atomic and optical physics
- Condensed matter physics
- Environmental applications
- Laser spectroscopy
- Classical and quantum waves
- Quantum computing
Outstanding performance in PHYS 0704 may, with the permission of the advisor and department, allow continuation of the senior project as a senior thesis (PHYS 0705).
A minimum grade average of B in physics courses is required of all honors candidates.
To be eligible for departmental honors, a student must also complete either a semester of senior thesis (PHYS 0705) or one additional elective beyond the number required. Honors in physics are awarded primarily on the basis of excellent senior work combined with depth and excellence of coursework in physics. A student’s overall accomplishments in the department, including teaching assistantships and leadership, are also considered in the awarding of honors.
Some students study physics with the intent of eventually doing engineering, either through a dual degree or in graduate school.
Students who pursue a physics major en route to a 3-2 engineering degree (in which the Middlebury component is completed by the end of the junior year) take the same eight-course sequence outlined above, with one elective chosen from physics courses at the 0200, 0300, or 0400 level; they also must complete a one-unit senior project (PHYS 0704).
Students in a 2-1-1-1 pre-engineering program (those who return to Middlebury for the senior year) take the normal physics major and choose electives in consultation with the pre-engineering advisor. One upper-level physics course per term completed off campus may be counted towards the major with the approval of the department chair, for a maximum of two transferred physics courses, only one of which may be an elective.
Students who seek advanced placement in physics should take the College Board AP examinations. Credit for PHYS 0109 is given to students who achieve a score of 4 or 5 on the Physics C: Mechanics examination.