Physics in the Core

Physics core courses include

  • Physics 22 (1 unit, fall or spring semester) Physics Laboratory
  • Physics 23 (1.5 units, fall semester) Special Relativity
  • Physics 24 (3 units, spring semester) Classical Mechanics
  • Physics 51 (3 units, fall semester) Electromagnetic Theory and Optics 

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 22 in the first or second semester, Physics 23 in the first semester, Physics 24 in the second semester, and Physics 51 in the third 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 and Physics 51 each have two lectures and two recitation sections each week; Physics 22 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 readiness to be advance placed in Physics 51. They are then 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 advance 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 each first-year student 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 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. If the number of students placing out of Physics 24 is sufficiently large, a special section of Physics 51 may be offered in the spring semester for first-year students. Otherwise, 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 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.
  3. A student who drops or fails Physics 24 may not enroll in Physics 51 the following semester unless he or she takes an approved calculus-based mechanics course over the summer and passes with a grade of “B–” or better. Students should submit candidate courses to the department chair for approval prior to enrolling in the course.
  4. A student must earn a passing letter grade (not “P”) in at least one of Physics 24 and Physics 51.

For Physics 24

  • A suitable mechanics course for summer study should be calculus-based and appropriate for the physical sciences and engineering.
  • The only appropriate online course to satisfy the summer requirement to permit a student to enroll in Physics 51 is the online version of Physics 24, How Stuff Moves.  However, to satisfy the Physics 24 requirement a student who takes an online course must pass our makeup exam in the fall with a score of 60% or better.
  • 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.

Additional Online Resources

For Physics 51

  • A suitable course on electromagnetism to replace Physics 51 should be a semester-long, calculus-based course on electricity, magnetism, and optics, appropriate for scientists and engineers (not pre-meds).
  • Physics 7B at the University of California at Berkeley is an example of such a course.

To be well prepared for physics laboratory courses, it is recommended that potential physics majors take the choice lab (CL 57—Lights, Camera, Action) offered by the physics department in the fall of the sophomore year. After completing Physics 51 and the choice lab, physics majors typically take Physics 52, Physics 54, and Math 115 (Partial Differential Equations) in the spring of their sophomore year. Other physics courses that can be taken in that semester are Physics 80 (Energy and the Environment), an Integrative Experience course, and 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.