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Physics and Astronomy Department
Jonathan H. McCoy
Physics and Astronomy Overview
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Colby has a very active Physics Department with a diverse group of majors, an average of 12 each year, which is more physics majors than you may find at many large universities. Nonetheless our department offers the benefits of a small program, and students and faculty get to know each other very well. Typically, upper-level physics courses each have about ten students, and the faculty are very accessible. In addition to the course work, we encourage all of our majors to get involved in research early on, and we require all senior physics majors to do an honors thesis or independent project and discuss the results with the whole department. Additionally, students sometimes travel to physics conferences to give presentations on their research.
Examples of student research in recent years include: mapping galactic red shifts, spectroscopy and magnetic properties of novel solid state materials, cooling and trapping of atoms with lasers and magnetic fields, studies of symmetry in nature, investigations of strongly coupled ultra-cold plasmas, and studies of quantum control of atomic systems. Students work closely with a faculty member in one of two atomic physics laboratories, in a laboratory to study semiconductor materials, at the college’s observatory, or in one of several other modern physics laboratories. In addition, students can analyze data collected in infrared observations of stars in formation made at national observatories, or perform calculations and computations in theoretical atomic physics.
The core curriculum of physics courses at Colby begins with a four-semester sequence covering classical mechanics, electromagnetism, light, optics, special relativity, quantum mechanics, and atomic physics. By the end of the second year, students are able to solve Schrodinger’s equation—the fundamental equation in quantum mechanics—and to calculate the properties of hydrogen as well as more complicated atoms. These courses have lab sections where students perform experiments involving collisions, conservation of energy, electronic circuits, measurement of the speed of light, radio-frequency spectroscopy, optical spectroscopy, and X-ray spectroscopy of atoms and molecules, X-ray diffraction, lasers, a Michelson-Morley interferometer, and nuclear physics. A wide selection of upper-level courses extends from thermodynamics to particle physics, and includes two courses in astronomy. We have a Celestron 14-inch telescope and an observatory building on campus. Students use a photometer and CCD camera to take images for processing and display on a computer. This equipment has become the basis of an upper-level course on astrophysics. It is also available for student projects, including research on variable stars, solar photography, and deep sky photography.
Some students who plan careers in engineering major in physics and some participate in the College’s 3-2 engineering program with Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. Students in this dual-degree program spend the freshman, sophomore, and senior years at Colby, and the junior year and a fifth year at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth. Students must apply for admission to Dartmouth during the sophomore year through a competitive selection process that includes students from other schools; the number of places in the program is limited. Professor Murray Campbell serves as the advisor to students considering the dual-degree program and interested students should consult him early in their Colby career. (A separate information sheet is available on engineering.)
After graduating from Colby, about half of our majors elect to work as teachers or in business or industry, or to go to medical or law school. We find that employers are very impressed by students who major in physics. Many of the students who start in business or industry enter MBA programs a few years after graduation. Other majors go on to graduate school in physics, astronomy, or engineering and have recently been admitted to such graduate schools as Dartmouth, Colorado, Washington, Michigan, Wisconsin, Berkeley, Stanford, Cornell, Rutgers, Tufts, Rochester, Maryland, Illinois, MIT, and Virginia. Our alumni tell us that they find their research experiences at Colby have prepared them well for graduate school.
Colby graduates are enjoying careers in physics around the world. Alumni who have gone on to earn a Ph.D. in physics presently have positions in Sweden and Germany as well as in the United States. Other graduates in physics are working as doctors, lawyers, engineers, computer scientists, and in positions in business and management.
In all scientific fields, in engineering, in medicine, in law, and in business, men and women educated in physics at Colby and other liberal arts colleges are able to play key roles. They are able to do so because these physicists—at all levels—are flexible, broadly educated “can do” people. The curriculum at Colby emphasizes flexibility while also making available thorough preparation for graduate study for the Ph.D. in physics at the most demanding graduate programs.
You can check out even more closely what we are up to by going to our home page on the World Wide Web, which is at http://www.colby.edu/physics/