Physics Major

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About the Major

Physics is the study of nature at its most fundamental. Its scope covers everything from the tiniest particles of matter—such as atoms, electrons, and quarks — to the structure of the entire universe, encompassing innumerable galaxies and stars.

Physicists seek to understand complex phenomena in terms of simple, unifying principles. Their queries have ranged from the seemingly innocuous, like "What causes an object to fall?", to the more elemental, like "What is the true nature of light?". Such questions led to the discovery of the gravitational force, which governs the motion of planets and stars, as well as to the biggest breakthrough of the twentieth century — quantum mechanics — which governs the very small. Answers to physicists' questions have revolutionized society, not only altering our basic understanding of the universe, but also profoundly affecting our day-to-day lives, laying the foundation for numerous technological innovations such as the laser, computer, and cellular phone. And physics continues to evolve and excite us, with unanswered questions from a multitude of active and emerging fields of research, such as Quantum Computation, Superconductivity, Chaos, Biophysics, and String Theory, to name a few.

The Physics program at UC Merced provides a strong foundation in the fundamentals of theoretical and applied physics, while also emphasizing the increasingly interdisciplinary role played by physicists in the scientific and technological community. This is reflected in the "core plus emphasis track" model of the major. The core is a rigorous grounding in fundamental physical principles, including electricity and magnetism, quantum and classical mechanics, and thermodynamics. The emphasis tracks consist of flexible specialization options. Possible emphases include Atomic, Molecular, and Optical (AMO) Physics; Mathematical Physics; Biophysics; and Condensed Matter and Materials Physics.

Physics students develop excellent quantitative and analytical skills, enabling them to approach new and complex problems that arise in any field. These fundamental skills are essential preparation for a wide range of careers in such fields as aerospace, biotechnology, computers, engineering, medicine, education, law, finance, business, and consulting.

Learning Outcomes

Graduates from the Physics B.S. program will have demonstrated the following PLOs:

  • Physical Principles — Students will be able to apply basic physical principles — including classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics — to explain, analyze, and predict a variety of natural phenomena.
  • Mathematical Expertise — Students will be able to apply advanced mathematical techniques (e.g., calculus, linear algebra, probability, and statistics) in their explanations, analyses, and predictions of physical phenomena.
  • Experimental Techniques — Students will be able to take physical measurements in an experimental laboratory setting and analyze these results to draw conclusions about the physical system under investigation, including whether their data supports or refutes a given physical model.
  • Communication and Teamwork Skills — Students will be able to clearly explain their mathematical and physical reasoning, both orally and in writing, and will be able to communicate and work effectively in groups on a common project.
  • Research Proficiency — Students will be able to formulate personal research questions that expand their knowledge of physics. Students will be able to apply sound scientific research methods to address these questions, either by researching the current literature or developing independent results.

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Careers

Physics students develop excellent quantitative and analytical skills, enabling them to approach new and complex problems that arise in any field. These fundamental skills are essential preparation for a wide range of careers in such fields as aerospace, biotechnology, computers, engineering, medicine, education, law, finance, business, and consulting.

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Requirements

In addition to adhering to the UC Merced and School of Natural Science requirements, the additional requirements that must be met to receive the B.S. in Physics at UC Merced are:

Requirements for All Emphases

Math/Science Preparatory Curricula (18 units)

  • MATH 21: Calculus of a Single Variable I* [4 units]
  • MATH 32: Probability and Statistics [4 units]
  • PHYS 8: Introductory Physics I* [4 units]
  • CHEM 2: General Chemistry [4 units]
  • CSE 20: Introduction to Computing I [2 units]

Lower Division Courses

  • MATH 22: Calculus of a Single Vaiable II [4 units]
  • MATH 23: Multivariable Calculus [4 units]
  • MATH 24: Linear Algebra and Differential Equations [4 units]
  • PHYS 9: Introductory Physics II [4 units]
  • PHYS 10:Introductory Physics III [4 units]

Upper Division Courses

  • PHYS 105: Analytical Mechanics Core [4 units]
  • PHYS 108: Thermal Physics Core [4.0 units]
  • PHYS 110: Electricity and Magnetism I [4 units]
  • PHYS 137: Quantum Mechanics Core [4 units]
  • PHYS 160: Modern Physics Lab [4 units]

Minicourses

  • PHYS 111: Electromagnetic Radiation Minicourse [2.0 units]
  • PHYS 122: Waves Minicourse [2.0 units]
  • PHYS 126: Special Relativity Minicourse [2.0 units]
  • PHYS 124: Atomic Structure Minicourse [2.0 units]

Additional Requirements for All Emphases

  • One breadth Science or Engineering elective (i.e. not Physics or Math) [3-4 units]
  • PHYS 195 & 196: Undergraduate Research — Senior Thesis (research from other programs may be substituted as appropriate) [at least 4 units]

Minicourses

The minicourses are half-semester courses designed to round out a student’s core training in physics. Physics majors are required to take all four of these minicourses.

Senior Research

All students are required to complete a senior thesis (PHYS 195) consisting of independent research performed under the tutelage of a faculty advisor. Typically, this research is the culmination of a student's emphasis track (see below.) The thesis advisor may be a faculty member in either physics or another discipline, allowing for the possibility of cross-disciplinary research projects.

Additional Requirements for Individual Emphases

Students are encouraged to choose their electives to form an emphasis track in an area of physics or interdisciplinary study. Some examples of tracks are Atomic, Molecular, and Optical (AMO) Physics; Mathematical Physics; Biophysics; Earth and Environmental Physics; Materials Physics; or Engineering Physics. Students have considerable flexibility in proposing and designing their own emphasis tracks, with the assistance of their faculty advisor. A track must consist of at least 12 units. Typically, the track includes the two upper division physics electives and culminates with the student's senior thesis (PHYS 195). Other upper division courses may be substituted for the two physics electives if they are deemed appropriate to the track. All track programs must be approved by the student's faculty advisor. A student may also choose, in consultation with the faculty advisor, not to participate in the track program at all, although the senior thesis and physics electives are still degree requirements.

Atomic/Molecular/Optical (AMO) Emphasis Track

  • PHYS 141: Condensed Matter Physics [4.0 units]
  • PHYS 144: Modern Atomic Physics [4.0 units]
  • PHYS 148: Modern Optics [4.0 units]

Biophysics Emphasis Track

  • BIO 104: Biophysics [4 units]

Students must complete two additional upper division BIO/BIOE electives from this list:

  • BIO 101: Biochemistry I [4.0 units]
  • BIO 106: Introduction to Molecular and Cell Biology [4.0 units]
  • BIO 107: Physical Biochemistry [4.0 units]
  • BIO 110: The Cell [4.0 units]
  • BIO 140: Genetics [4.0 units]
  • BIO 141: Evolution [4.0 units]
  • BIO 145: Introduction to Population and Community Ecology [4.0 units]
  • BIO 161: Human Physiology [5.0 units]
  • BIO 180: Mathematical Modeling for Biology [4.0 units]
  • BIO 181: Introduction to Biomolecular Simulation [4.0 units]
  • BIOE 102: Biosensors [4.0 units]
  • BIOE 104: Biotransport [4.0 units]
  • BIOE 113: Bioinstrumentation [4.0 units]

Mathematical Physics Emphasis Track

At least three of the following:

  • MATH 122: Complex variables and applications [4.0 units]
  • MATH 125: Intermediate Differential Equations [4.0 units]
  • MATH 126: Partial Differential Equations [4.0 units]
  • MATH 131: Numerical Analysis I [4.0 units]
  • MATH 132: Numerical Analysis II [4.0 units]
  • MATH 141: Linear Analysis I [4.0 units]
  • MATH 150: Mathematical Modeling [4.0 units]
  • MATH 181: Stochastic Processes [4.0 units]

Transfer Students

Physics will begin accepting junior level students and above beginning in Fall 2008. Transfer students who wish to major in Physics should complete four semesters of calculus, covering the topics of single variable calculus, multi-variable calculus, differential equations and preferably linear algebra. In addition, transfer students should complete one semester of general chemistry with laboratory and three semesters of calculus-based physics with laboratory. Students should consult the online student-transfer information system at www.assist.org. Students should also consult the Information for Prospective Students link on the School of Natural Sciences web site for more information.

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Courses

PHYS 005: Energy and the Environment [3]

This is an introductory course on energy and the environment. It examines different types of renewable and nonrenewable energy sources and the environmental effects of using these energy resources. The course will cover environmental, economic and sustainability considerations associated with fossil fuels and alternative energy sources. Normal Letter Grade only.  [Syllabus]

PHYS 006: The Cosmos, Science and You [4]

Introduction to physics and astronomy for non science and engineering majors. Topics include: Scientific method as illustrated by astronomical discoveries about the Cosmos; and the concepts of matter and energy; and the formation of the Universe, galaxies, stars and the Solar System. Throughout the course our physical connection and dependence the Cosmos will be illustrated using new discoveries in astrophysics, astrochemistry and astrobiology.  [Syllabus]

PHYS 008: Introductory Physics I [4]

Introduction to classical and contemporary physics. Intended for students with preparation in calculus and algebra. Topics include introduction to forces, kinetics, equilibria, fluids, waves and heat. Experiments and computer exercises are integrated into the course content. Prerequisite: MATH 21 or ICP 1A.
 [Syllabus]

PHYS 009: Introductory Physics II [4]

Continuation of introduction to classical and contemporary physics. Topics include introduction to electricity, magnetism, electromagnetic waves, optics and modern physics. Experiments and computer exercises are integrated into the course content. Prerequisite: PHYS 8 and MATH 21 or ICP 1A.
 [Syllabus]

PHYS 010: Introductory Physics III [4]

An introduction to developments in modern physics over the last 150 years that have radically altered our view of nature. Particular emphasis is placed on relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics with applications to atoms, molecules, solids and light. Prerequisite: PHYS 08, PHYS 018, or ICP 1A and ICP 1B. Corequisite: PHYS 09 or PHYS 19 (may be taken concurrently or previously).
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PHYS 12: Light, Color, Vision [4]

Introduction to the physics, chemistry and biology of light and vision for nonscientists. Covers basic optics, optical instruments, photography, light and color in nature, human and animal vision, visual perception and optical illusions and aspects of modern technology including fiber optics and lasers. Includes classroom demonstrations and out-of-class observational exercises.  

PHYS 018: Introductory Physics I for Biological Sciences [4]

First introductory physics course for biological science majors. Topics include vectors, kinematics, Newton's Laws, Work, Energy and Conservation, Torque and rotation, Fluids and Elasticity, Oscillations and Waves all with an emphasis on biological applications. Prerequisite: MATH 21. Normal Letter Grade only.
 [Syllabus]

PHYS 019: Introductory Physics II for Biological Sciences [4]

The physical principles of electromagnetism and thermodynamics are introduced, examined and discussed in the context of biological applications. Prerequisite: PHYS 8 and MATH 21 or ICP 1A.
 [Syllabus]

PHYS 90X: Freshman Seminar [1]

Examination of a topic in physics. May be repeated for credit.  

PHYS 95: Lower Division Undergraduate Research [1-5]

Supervised research. Permission of instructor required.  

PHYS 98: Lower Division Directed Group Study [1-5]

Permission of instrucor required. Pass/No Pass grading only.  

PHYS 099: Lower Division Individual Study [1-5]

Permission of instructor required. Pass/No Pass grading only.  

PHYS 104: Biophysics [4]

This course aims to give students an understanding of relevant physical principles for biological systems, introduce them to experimental and theoretical techniques of biophysics and to communicate the excitement of cutting-edge biophysics research. Topics include diffusion, fluids, entropic forces, motor proteins, enzymes, nerve impulses, networks and evolution.  [Syllabus]

PHYS 105: Analytic Mechanics Core [4]

This course provides a rigorous, mathematical foundation in classical mechanics. Topics includeNewtonian mechanics; motion of particles in one, two and three dimensions; centralforce motion; moving coordinate systems; mechanics of continuous media; oscillations; normalmodes; Lagrange?s equations; and Hamiltonian methods. Prerequisite: PHYS 8 and MATH 22.  [Syllabus]

PHYS 108: Thermal Physics Core (4)

Geometrical optics, radioactive transfer, partial coherence, lasers, quantum optics. Prerequisite: PHYS 111.  [Syllabus]

PHYS 110: Electrodynamics Core [4]

Intermediate Electrodynamics. Topics covered include vector calculus including divergence, curland vector field theorems; Electrostatics including field, potential, work and energy; Laplace’s equation including solutions in different geometries, separating variables, method of images andmultipole expansions; Electrostatics in media including polarization and dielectrics (linear/nonlinear); Magnetostatics including the Biot-Savart Law, Ampere’s Law and vector potentials;Magnetic fields in matter including magnetization, linear and non-linear media; andElectrodynamics including EMF, induction and Maxwell’s equations as well as conservation ofcharge, energy and momentum in EM fields. Prerequisite: PHYS 9 and MATH 23. [Syllabus]  [Syllabus]

PHYS 111: Electromagnetic Radiation Minicourse [2]

This half-semester minicourse covers plane electromagnetic waves including polarization,reflection, refraction and dispersion. Electromagnetic waves in wave guides and cavities will alsobe covered. Additional topics include radiation, both dipole and multipole as well as scatteringand diffraction Prerequisite: PHYS 110 and PHYS 122.  [Syllabus]

PHYS 112: Statistical Mechanics Core [4]

This course covers the fundamental concepts of statistical mechanics, which form themicroscopic basis for thermodynamics. Topics include applications to macroscopic systems,condensed states, phase transformations, quantum distributions, elementary kinetic theory oftransport processes and fluctuation phenomena. Prerequisite: PHYS 10 and MATH 22. [Syllabus]  [Syllabus]

PHYS 120: Physics of Materials [4]

Electrical, optical and magnetic properties of solids. Free electron model, introduction to band theory. Crystal structures and lattice vibrations. Mechanisms and characterization of electrical conductivity, optical absorption, magnetic behavior, dielectric properties and p-n junctions. Prerequisite: PHYS 9 and CHEM 112.  

PHYS 122: Waves Minicourse [2]

This half-semester minicourse covers scalar wave phenomena and mathermatical methods inPhysics. Prerequisite: PHYS 10 and MATH 24.  [Syllabus]

PHYS 124: Rotational Mechanics Minicourse [2]

This half-semester minicourse covers classical and quantum rotational dynamics. Classicaltopics include rigid body rotations, tops and gyroscopes. Quantum topics include molecularrotational spectra, nuclear magnetic resonance and the hydrogen atom. The connectionbetween classical and quantum angular momentum is emphasized Prerequisite: PHYS 137 and PHYS 105.  [Syllabus]

PHYS 126: Special Relativity Minicourse [2]

This half-semester minicourse introduces the exciting and thought-provoking physics of specialrelativity. Topics include hallmark experiments; Lorentz transformations; time dilation andlength contraction; relativistic optics; tensor techniques; mass, energy and momentum;relativistic mechanics; and relativisitic electricity and magnetism. Prerequisite: PHYS 9.  [Syllabus]

PHYS 129: Particle Physics [3]

Tools of particle and nuclear physics. Properties, classification and interaction of particles including the quark-gluon constituents of hadrons. High-energy phenomena analyzed by quantum mechanical methods. Quantum number determination of resonances, hadron structure functions, introductory electro- weak theory with Dirac matrices, Standard Model (overview), grand unified theories. Prerequisite: PHYS 136.  

PHYS 137: Quantum Mechanics Core [4]

This course covers the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, which forms the foundation of ourmodern understanding of matter at the atomic and molecular level. Topics include theSchroedinger equation, Hilbert spaces, the operator formalism, the Heisenberg UncertaintyPrinciple, tunneling, pertubation and WKB theory, fermions and bosons. Prerequisite: PHYS 105, MATH 23 and MATH 24.
 [Syllabus]

PHYS 141: Condensed Matter Physics [3]

Classification of solids and their bonding; electromagnetic, elastic and particle waves in periodic lattices; thermal, magnetic and dielectric properties of solids; energy bands of metals and semiconductors; superconductivity; magnetism; ferroelectricity; magnetic resonance. Prerequisite: PHYS 137.  [Syllabus]

PHYS 144: Modern Atomic Physics [4]

The description and calculation of the properties of atomic energy levels based on the centralfield approximation. Modern experimental methods in atomic physics and some of theimportant physics obtained from them. Examples include magnetic resonance, lasers andmasers, ion and netural atom traps, optical pumping and beam foil spectroscopy. Prerequisite: PHYS 124.  [Syllabus]

PHYS 148: Modern Optics [4]

Geometrical optics, radiative transfer, partial coherence, lasers, quantum optics. Prerequisite: PHYS 111.  [Syllabus]

PHYS 150: Energy Sources [3]

Fossil energy resources, nuclear energy, solar energy and other renewable energy sources (wind, hydro, geothermal). Prerequisite: MATH 22 or PHYS 9.  

PHYS 151: Solar Energy [3]

The solar energy resource, modeling and simulation, thermal collectors, photovoltaic collectors, solar energy systems, special applications (solar lasers, material processing) Prerequisite: MATH 22 or PHYS 9.  [Syllabus]

PHYS 159: Particle Physics [4]

Tools of particle and nuclear physics. Properties, classification and interactions of particles including the quark-gluon constituents of hadrons. High-energy phenomena analyzed by quantum mechanical methods. Quantum number determination of resonances, hardon structure functions, introductory electroweak theory with dirac matrices, Standard Model (overview), grand unified theories. Prerequisite: PHYS 137.  

PHYS 160: Modern Physics Lab [4]

Provides a rigorous foundation in physics laboratory techniques, with an emphasis on hands-on laboratory training. The nature of the experiments available to students will cover a range of modern topics, from nonlinear dynamics and chaos through nonlinear optics and spectroscopy. Emphasis is placed on error estimation, data analysis and interpretation. Prerequisite: PHYS 10.  [Syllabus]

PHYS 161: Astrophysics and Cosmology [3]

Elements of general relativity. Physics of pulsars, cosmic rays, black holes. The cosmological distance scale, elementary cosmological models, properties of galaxies and quasars. The mass density and age of the universe. Evidence for dark matter and concepts of the early universe and of galaxy formation. Reflections on astrophysics as a probe of the extreme of physics. Prerequisite: MATH 22 and PHYS 9.  [Syllabus]

PHYS 195: Upper Division Undergraduate Research [1-5]

Permission of instructor required.  

PHYS 198: Upper Division Directed Group Study [1-5]

Permission of instructor required. Pass/No Pass grading only.  

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Assessment Plan

Timeline and Goals

The Physics program will graduate its first full class of Physics majors in the spring of 2010. Thus, it has only been in the 2008-09 academic year that we have been able to gather our first data on the junior level courses in the Physics program, which constitutes the core of the major. Over the next five years, as more data on student success becomes available, we shall reassess the structure of our major, in terms of the specific material covered, as well as the learning outcomes discussed below.

Programmatic Learning Outcomes (PLOs)

Graduates from the Physics B.S. program will have demonstrated the following PLOs:

  1. Physical Principles — Students will be able to apply basic physical principles — including classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, and statistical mechanics — to explain, analyze, and predict a variety of natural phenomena.
  2. Mathematical Expertise — Students will be able to apply advanced mathematical techniques (e.g., calculus, linear algebra, probability, and statistics) in their explanations, analyses, and predictions of physical phenomena.
  3. Experimental Techniques — Students will be able to take physical measurements in an experimental laboratory setting and analyze these results to draw conclusions about the physical system under investigation, including whether their data supports or refutes a given physical model.
  4. Communication and Teamwork Skills — Students will be able to clearly explain their mathematical and physical reasoning, both orally and in writing, and will be able to communicate and work effectively in groups on a common project.
  5. Research Proficiency — Students will be able to formulate personal research questions that expand their knowledge of physics. Students will be able to apply sound scientific research methods to address these questions, either by researching the current literature or developing independent results.

Evidence

The following measures will be used to assess the success of the physics program in achieving the above PLOs. (Learning objectives that are tested are included within the parentheses.)

  1. Student Work in Formal Courses — Specifics include:
    • The performance of Physics majors on the cumulative finals of the four core courses (PHYS 110, 105, 137, 112) will be assessed by a panel of faculty. (1,2)
    • Oral and written laboratory reports for PHYS 160 will be assessed by a faculty panel. (3, 4, 5)
  2. Senior Thesis — This cumulative capstone experience is a requirement of all physics majors. The senior thesis and an accompanying oral thesis presentation will be assessed by a faculty committee. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) 3. Student Perception Survey and Exit Interview. This survey and interview will be administered to students upon graduation (and at other appropriate times) to determine whether students believe that they have achieved the objectives of the Physics major. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  3. GRE data — Senior students who take the Physics GRE will be asked to voluntarily provide their scores for statistical purposes. (1, 2)
  4. Student success after graduation — (i.e. acceptance to graduate or professional school, or employment in a field that makes use of the student's education.) Efforts will be made to track all graduates annually for at least several years after graduation and to request their feedback in a 5-year follow up survey. (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)
  5. Student "culture" activities — Participation of students in extracurricular activities such as a Physics Club, volunteering at science fares, presentation of research results at University research days and conferences will be used to assess the overall health of the program and the ability of students to communicate and work in groups, as well as an indication of the research caliber of students. (4, 5)

A critical component of the success in gathering and interpreting these measures will be the staff support to gather and organize the above date, especially items 3 – 6.

Process for Assessment

2008-09 Academic year. During the summer of 2009 the Physics faculty will hold a retreat to assess the Physical Principles PLO by examining student final exams from the core physics courses. This process will include the development of an assessment rubric. Since the core physics courses are still small (from about 10 to 20 students), it is expected that the faculty will review the work of all the students. This retreat will also be a convenient time to assess the curriculum for overall consistency and sequencing of course material across the core physics curriculum. The following is a tentative future projection of programmatic reviews:

  • 2009-2010 Academic Year — During the summer of 2010 the faculty will assess the Mathematical Expertise PLO
  • 2010-2011 Academic Year — During the summer of 2011 the faculty will assess the Research Proficiency PLO. This will give us a chance to review the thesis program after two years of operation.
  • 2011-2012 Academic Year — During the summer of 2012 the faculty will assess the Experimental Techniques PLO.
  • 2012-2013 Academic Year — During the summer of 2012 the faculty will assess the Communication and Teamwork Skills PLO.

Participants

All physics faculty are expected to participate in the annual retreats to review and update program requirements and expectations. One faculty member will be elected by the group to coordinate this effort. The data collection, in particular items 3 – 6, will rely on the support of staff in the School of Natural Sciences and/or the CRTE. For example, the CRTE will be asked to assist with item 3 (student perception surveys).

Minor

The Physics minor is a reduced version of the Physics major. Given the reduced requirements, we shall assess the minor only according to PLOs one and two above. The assessment of these PLOs for the major thus serves the minor as well.

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