Physics
Chair: Kurt R. Hoffman
Andrés Aragoneses
Moira I. Gresham
Douglas H. Juers (on sabbatical, 20242025)
Ashmeet Singh
About the Department
Physics courses deal mainly with the laws governing fundamental natural phenomena and the applications of those laws. The major study program can provide a sound basis for students going on to graduate work in physics or engineering and for those planning to teach physics or seeking a background in physics for work in other fields.
A student who enters Whitman without any prior collegelevel preparation in physics or calculus will have to complete 47 credits to fulfill the requirements for the Physics major. Courses numbered 300 and above may not be taken PDF.
Learning Goals
Upon graduation, a student will be able to:
 Solve problems using disciplinespecific knowledge and techniques.
 Design and conduct an experimental investigation, analyze the data, and assess theoretical models of the system being studied.
 Communicate their results through written and/or oral expression.
Distribution
For students who started at Whitman College prior to Fall 2024, specified courses in Physics can count toward the science, science laboratory, or quantitative analysis distribution areas.
For students who start at Whitman College in Fall 2024 or later, please refer to the General Studies section for a full list of courses that count toward each distribution area.
Program Planning
Course progression for majors: A typical program of the required physics courses and mathematics and statistics requirements for students completing a Physics major with no advanced placement in calculus is as follows:
 First year: Mathematics 124 or 125 (three credits); Physics 155 (see note) and Mathematics 126 (seven credits)
 Second year: Physics 156 and Mathematics 225 (eight credits); Physics 245, 255, and Mathematics 244 (eight credits)
 Third year: Physics 267; two 300level Physics courses, including at least one of Physics 325, 339, 347, 357, or 385; and Mathematics 240 (nine credits)
 Fourth year: Two or more 300level Physics courses
 Note
 Students with strong high school physics background (e.g., AP Physics C, calculusbased physics, collegelevel physics) should consider stepping directly into Physics 156 during the fall of their first or second year. If interested, contact a Physics professor about the placement exam prior to the fall semester.
 Additional Physics courses must be taken during the third and fourth years to meet the minimum credit requirement. Every effort will be made to offer courses required for the major and combined majors every year. Upperlevel electives will typically be offered in alternate years. Students seriously considering graduate studies in physics or a physicsrelated field are encouraged to consult with their major advisor to design a course of study that will be best suit their goals.
 In the final semester of the senior year, the student must pass a senior assessment consisting of a written exam and a onehour oral exam.
Nonmajor courses: Courses numbered below 110 are intended for students majoring in fields other than science.
General physics: There are two versions of the introductory general physics sequence. Physics 145/146 is intended for students planning no further study in physics. Physics 155/156 is intended for students planning to take upperlevel physics courses, including Physics majors, Physics combined majors, PreEngineering majors and BBMB majors. To get course equivalency for Physics 145 or 155, the course must be calculusbased and have a lab component. The department administers placement exams during the summer for students with strong high school physics background who might be prepared to skip Physics 155 and begin the physics sequence with Physics 156 in the fall. A score of 5 on the Physics C Advanced Placement test transfers as credit for the lecture component of Phys 155; to obtain full credit for Phys 155, students must additionally take the 1credit Phys155L course.
Programs of Study

Physics/PreEngineering Major 
GeologyPhysics Major 
MathematicsPhysics Major 
PhysicsAstronomy Major 
PhysicsEnvironmental Studies Major 
Physics Major 
Physics Minor
Courses
Course designed for nonscience majors to explore some basic concepts of physics and their applications through readings, discussion, problemsolving, and occasional laboratory activities. Possible course titles include: How Things Work, Light and Color, and Physical Science. The topic for each course will be designated prior to registration for the semester in which the course will be taught. Students with AP credit for physics at Whitman or who have received credit for Whitman’s Physics 145 or higher cannot receive credit for Physics 101 or 102. See course schedule for any current offerings.
This course will provide students with conceptual, quantitative, and laboratory based analysis of sound, musical instruments, music recording and storage, and room acoustics. Through detailed analysis of musical instruments as physical systems, students will develop an understanding of important physical concepts including sound waves, harmonic oscillators, energy, standing waves, resonance, and more. The course will culminate in student projects that may include building an instrument, designing and executing an experimental investigation related to acoustics, or extending course material to a new area of inquiry through a research paper. The course will meet four hours a week with two of those hours typically devoted to laboratory based learning.
This course examines the physical principles that govern energy transformations. It will focus on the use of energy in the world, specifically its production, transportation, consumption and the implications this use has for the environment. Topics addressed will range from the mechanical to electricity and magnetism and from thermodynamics to atomic/nuclear physics. Energy resources both new and traditional (fuel cells versus oil) will be addressed as well as environmental issues ranging from global warming to the disposal of radioactive waste. This course assumes a basic familiarity with algebra.
This course serves as an introduction to contemporary issues and topics in physics. Through readings and discussions, students will explore the activities of modernday physicists. Although this course is intended for students planning to continue toward a physics or physicsrelated major, it is an excellent course for students wanting a better understanding of what physics is “all about” and how it is done, as a profession, at the beginning of the 21st century. Physics 115 and 116 each may be taken once, for a total of two credits. No examinations. Graded credit/no credit only. Does not fulfill science or quantitative analysis distribution.
Corequisite for Physics 115: Physics 155; or consent of instructor.
Corequisite for Physics 116: Physics 156; or consent of instructor.
A course option specifically for students who score a 5 on the AP Physics C: Mechanics exam or who have taken calculusbased introductory physics without a laboratory at another institution; such students may complete Phys 135 to receive College credit equivalent to Phys 155. The course is a series of exercises and problems requiring the manipulation of physical apparatuses and use of data collection and computation tools. Laboratory exercises and problems are designed to deepen student understanding of physical phenomena addressed in General Physics 155. Phys 135 students enroll in a Phys 155L laboratory section alongside Phys 155 students. Graded credit/no credit only. Does not fulfill science or quantitative analysis distribution.
Mathematics 124 or 125
Consent of instructor.
This course focuses on classical mechanics: kinematics, Newton's Laws, energy and momentum conservation, torques, fluids, and waves. Examples and problems will focus on applications of physical principles to life and earth science fields to a greater extent than in Physics 155. Students enrolling in this course also will be required to enroll in an associated laboratory course (Physics 145L). Three 50minute or two 80minute class meetings and two 90minute laboratory meetings per week. Evaluation based on homework, laboratory reports, and examinations.
Mathematics 124 or 125.
Includes a required corequisite lab, Physics 145L.
This course is a continuation of the course Physics 145. Topics studied include electricity and magnetism, circuits, optics, nuclear and atomic physics. Examples and problems will focus on applications of physical principles to life and earth science fields to a greater extent than in Physics 156. Not intended for students planning to take upper level physics or biophysics. Students enrolling in Physics 146 also will be required to enroll in an associated laboratory course (Physics 146L). Three 50minute or two 80minute class meetings and two 90minute laboratory meetings per week. Evaluation based on homework, laboratory reports, and examinations.
Physics 145 or 155; and Mathematics 124 or 125.
Includes a required corequisite lab, Physics 146L.
This course focuses on classical mechanics: kinematics, Newton’s laws of motion, energy and momentum conservation, and waves. Students enrolling in this course also will be required to enroll in an associated laboratory course (Physics 155L). Three 50minute or two 80minute class meetings and two 90minute laboratory meetings per week. Evaluation based on homework, laboratory reports, and examinations.
Mathematics 124 or 125.
Includes a required corequisite lab, Physics 155L.
This course is a continuation of the course Physics 155. Topics studied include electricity and magnetism, circuits, optics, plus brief introductions to more contemporary topics such as special relativity or quantum physics. Students enrolling in Physics 156 also will be required to enroll in an associated laboratory course (Physics 156L). Three 50minute or two 80minute class meetings and two 90minute laboratory meetings per week. Evaluation based on homework, laboratory reports, and examinations.
Physics 145 or 155; and Mathematics 124 or 125.
Includes a required corequisite lab, Physics 156L.
See course schedule for any current offerings.
Topics include thermodynamics, special relativity, nuclear decay and radiation, wave nature of particles, introduction to the Schrodinger Equation: infinite well. Mathematical methods relevant to these areas of inquiry will be discussed: probability theory, differential equations.
Experimental investigations of a variety of phenomena relating to the Physics 245 course. Experimental topics studied include: thermodynamics, nuclear decay and radiation, photoelectric effect and standing waves. Emphasis on experimental technique, problemsolving, data analysis, and scientific writing. No examinations. One threehour laboratory per week.
This is a semester long course/laboratory combination that serves as an indepth introduction to the theory and practice of analog/digital electronics and instrumentation. The course content may include: combinational logic, Boolean algebra, Karnaugh maps, sequential logic, digital circuit design, AC signals, equivalent circuits, filter theory and implementation, transistor theory and implementation, and operational amplifier circuits. Meets for one 80 minute class and one 3hour lab per week (two sections of lab offered).
Includes a required corequisite lab, Physics 267L.
Computational tools and techniques are used ubiquitously in physics, and are integral to how physics is currently practiced. This course combines mathematical methods and computational tools relevant for modeling, solving and visualizing physical systems that cannot be solved by conventional analytical techniques. Topics from classical and quantum mechanics will be analyzed, along with applications to other areas of student interest. Methods taught include numerical solution of system of equations, differential equation solvers, Fourier transforms, optimization techniques, eigenvalue and other matrix problems in linear algebra. It will also focus on data analysis using linear regression. Students will use Python as the primary programming language, though syntaxial skills developed in computer programming can be translated to other languages as well. The course will consist of lectures and handson computational sessions, structured around individual and collaborative problem solving, and miniprojects.
We will learn Einstein's Theory of General Relativity and apply it to neutron stars and black holescompact objects at the frontier of human knowledge about the fundamental nature of space, time, and matter. John Wheeler famously characterized General Relativity as saying, "Space tells matter how to move. Matter tells space how to curve." The theory is written in the language of differential geometry, so along the way to articulating and using the theory, we will introduce mathematical constructs from this branch of mathematics. We will necessarily develop our formal mathematical reasoning ability, and both linear algebra and multivariate calculus will serve as essential background knowledge. At the same time, we will take a *physics first* approach, and introduce needed differential geometry concepts gradually, applying them to physics problems at each earliest opportunity. Toward the end of the course, using knowledge gained in the first portion of the class, students will work on projects relating to contemporary research on black holes or neutron stars. May be elected as Astronomy 380.
The application of concepts and approaches from physics and mathematics (e.g. mechanics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, quantum physics, probability) to deepen understanding of molecular and cell biology. We will focus on simplified models that capture the salient features of biological systems. Example topics include diffusion, hydrodynamics and cellular locomotion, free energy transduction, ligand binding, entropic forces, molecular motors, macromolecular conformation, signal propagation in neurons, gene expression, and vision. Includes exercises in computation; no prior coding experience assumed. Three onehour lectures per week; weekly problem sets; exams. May be elected as BBMB 324. Open to nonBBMB/Physics majors only with consent of instructor.
Electrostatics, electric and magnetic properties of materials, electromagnetic theory. Maxwell’s equations, electromagnetic waves, boundary value problems. Includes mathematical methods of wide use in physics. Lectures and problems.
Laboratory exercises on a range of biophysical topics. Experimental testing of models developed in BBMB 324. Study of macromolecules using techniques that may include absorption spectroscopy, fluorescence spectroscopy, circular dichroism, NMR, crystallization and structure determination via Xray diffraction. One three to four hour laboratory per week. May be elected as BBMB 334. Open to nonBBMB/Physics majors only with consent of instructor.
Experimental investigations of sophisticated analog and digital circuitry and the fundamental physics underpinning their operation. Students will employ programming tools to automate and enhance aspects of experimental techniques and subsequent analysis of data. Students will design and implement extensions to experiments in classical and modern physics with an emphasis on laboratory technique, technical and scientific writing, and analysis. The course will be a combination of lecture and laboratory activities meeting two days a week.
Noninertial coordinate systems, systems of particles, rigid body motion. Lagrangian mechanics, normal modes of vibration, and Hamiltonian mechanics. Includes mathematical methods of wide use in physics. Lectures and problems. Three lectures per week.
Modern physical optics including a study of the propagation of light, coherence and interference, diffraction, image formation. Fourier optics, spatial filtering, polarization, the optical activity of solids, the quantum nature of light, lasers, and holography. Lectures and problems. Three lectures per week.
Soft condensed matter is a rapidly growing area of study, focusing on the behavior of easily deformed materials. Colloids, polymers, surfactants, liquid crystals, gels, foams, and granular materials are all easily deformed by relatively weak external stresses including mechanical forces, electric or magnetic fields, fluid flow and thermal energy. Soft matter materials include biological materials, foods, and silly putty, and often confound, or straddle, conventional classifications of matter. We will investigate the behavior of several types of soft matter, and explore how models that incorporate selfassembly, mesoscopic length scales and coarse graining, viscoelasticity, thermal energy and entropy, and universality help us to understand their complex behavior. Assignments will include problem sets, exams, inclass lab activities and one project/report.
Mathematics and Statistics 225.
Thermodynamics, entropy, thermodynamic potentials, phase changes, chemical reactions, kinetic theory, distributions, phase space, transport phenomena, fluctuations; classical and quantum statistical mechanics, application to solids, radiation, superfluids, lasers, and astrophysics. Lectures, discussion, and problems.
From electrons to quarks to neutrinos to the Higgs mechanism, this course centers on a quantitative introduction to the Standard Model of particle physicsthe welltested model that describes all elementary particles and nongravitational forces discovered up until the present. A significant portion of the class will be dedicated to learning and using the Feynman Calculus to calculate observable properties of elementary particle interactions. The course will end with a description of the Higgs mechanism and a discussion of some of the most pressing outstanding questions in particle physics.
Recommended corequisite: Mathematics and Statistics 240.
This course begins with the quantum description of some twodimensional systems (photon polarization and spin1/2 particles) using the formalism of matrix mechanics. The course then moves on to cover twoparticle systems, time evolution, and continuous systems (e.g., the harmonic oscillator). Lectures, discussion, problems. In years when the Quantum Mechanics laboratory is offered as a corequisite with the course experiments will include single photon interference, and tests of local realism (e.g., Bell inequalities). The course will be 3credits with no lab, and 4credits with the lab.
Mathematics 240 or 367.
Includes an optional 1credit corequisite lab, Physics 385L.
Specialized topics in physics such as: spectroscopic techniques, semiconductor physics, laser physics, plasma physics, advanced instrumentation techniques. See course schedule for any current offerings.
Consent of instructor.
Oral reports by students on individual reading and research, talks by faculty and visiting physicists, group discussion of readings of general interest. Students submit notes on talks and their own lecture notes. No examinations. One meeting per week. Graded credit/no credit.
Consent of instructor.
Experimental or theoretical research or reading in an area of physics not covered in regular courses, under supervision of a faculty member. Maximum six credits.
Consent of instructor.
Preparation of a thesis.
Designed to further independent research or projects leading to the preparation of an undergraduate thesis or a project report. Required of and limited to senior honors candidates in physics.
Admission to honors candidacy.