Physics in the Core

Physics core courses include

  • Physics 23 (1.5 units, fall semester) Special Relativity
  • Physics 24 (3 units, spring semester) Classical Mechanics
  • Physics 50 (1 unit, fall or spring semester of sophomore year) Physics Laboratory

Some of the core topics are typically part of high school physics courses; they are covered at Harvey Mudd College in considerably greater depth than most and use more mathematics than is possible in the great majority of high school courses.

For most students the required sequence of courses is Physics 23 in the first semester, Physics 24 in the second semester, and Physics 50 in the third or fourth semester. Physics 23 has one lecture and two problem sections each week for the first half or the second half of the first semester; Physics 24 has two lectures and two recitation sections each week; Physics 50 meets every week for two hours.

All students take a 90-minute placement exam during orientation. The exam covers some basic mathematics and classical mechanics. We also ask students to describe their physics background: the courses they have taken, books used, grades earned, and AP physics scores, if available.

A student who demonstrates a high level of mastery of both classical mechanics and special relativity should speak to the physics department chair immediately following the placement exam during orientation. Few students will have taken a course in special relativity before coming to Harvey Mudd College, at least in the depth covered in Physics 23. Students who nevertheless believe that they have a strong background in special relativity and in classical mechanics should arrange with the physics department chair to take further examinations during orientation to demonstrate their mastery of the material of core physics. On successful challnege, they are eligible to take Physics 52 (Quantum Physics) in the spring semester.

A larger number of students may be well prepared in classical mechanics but not in special relativity. They have the opportunity to try to place out of Physics 24. To determine whether students qualify for advance placement out of Physics 24, an optional 3-hour placement exam will be offered, typically on the first Saturday of the fall semester. Students who take this second exam will then confer with the department chair to determine whether they should take Physics 24, Physics 24A (an advanced-placed section of Physics 24 that covers similar material to Physics 24 but with less lecture and with somewhat more challenging problems), or simply place out of Physics 24.

With the results of placement exams and previous test-scores, the physics department endeavors to place first-year students in an appropriate course that is close to being right for that student. We want each student to be challenged, but not overly challenged. Students with placement questions are encouraged to speak with the physics department chair during orientation.

The placement exams are on classical mechanics, including (but not restricted to) the laws of motion of particles, conservation of momentum, energy, and angular momentum, gravitation, oscillation, and waves. Students interested in advance placement should review material in these areas learned in high school or college courses taken previously.

Students who place out of both Physics 23 and Physics 24 in their first year—and who are interested in continuing in physics—will normally take Physics 51 in the fall; they are then eligible to take Physics 52 (Quantum Physics) in the spring of their first year. For students who place out of Physics 24 (but not Physics 23), a number of options are available. Students receiving advanced placement may take Physics 32 (Gravitation) or Astronomy 62 (Introduction to Astrophysics), participate in physics research, or pursue coursework outside physics in that semester. They would then take Physics 51 in the fall of the sophomore year and be eligible to take Physics 52 (Quantum Physics) in the spring of their sophomore year.

  1. A student who drops a core physics course must enroll in the same course at the next available offering of the course.
  2. A student who fails a core physics course may, with the advanced permission of the physics department chair, take a department-approved course at another institution. To satisfy the HMC course requirement, the student must earn a grade of “B–” or better in that course. The student’s transcript will then show the transfer credit from the other institution, but the grade will not count towards the student’s HMC grade point average. The non-HMC course must be completed successfully before the next offering of the core physics course at HMC; if not, the student must re-enroll in the core physics course.

For Physics 24

  • A suitable mechanics course for summer study should be calculus-based and appropriate for the physical sciences and engineering. It should be approved in advance of enrollment by the physics department chair.
  • A student my satisfy the Physics 24 requirement by passing our makeup exam in the fall with a score of 60% or better. This option is only available once.
  • After identifying a suitable course, a student should send information about the course to the Chair of Physics for approval prior to enrolling in the course. Appropriate information includes the course textbook, the catalog description, and the course website, if available.

To be well prepared for physics laboratory courses, it is recommended that potential physics majors take Physics 50 in their third semester. After completing Physics 51, physics majors typically take Physics 52, Physics 54, and p064 in the spring of their sophomore year. Another physics course that can be taken in that semester is Astronomy 62 (Introduction to Astrophysics). Other spring-semester courses appropriate for sophomores that are offered typically on an every-other-year basis include Physics 166 (Geophysics), and Physics 174 (Biophysics). Occasionally sophomores, if they have sufficient background in mathematics, take Physics 111 (Theoretical Mechanics) in the fall of their sophomore year; interested students should speak first with their advisor and the Physics 111 instructor.