Students of physics study the physical world, asking what it is made of, what its attributes are and how all of its pieces function together. The focus of physics can range from tiny atoms to entire galaxies, and physicists investigate issues related to thermo-dynamics, relativity, quantum mechanics, mechanics and electronics. The curriculum offered by the Department of Physics provides knowledge of the physical concepts that are basic to the laws of nature, and the ability to use these fundamental concepts to answer questions and solve real problems. Students also gain an understanding of the relationship of physics to other fields such as astronomy, biology, engineering, chemistry and medicine.
Physics provides an excellent background for a wide variety of careers. Design and development work in industrial firms, government laboratories and nonprofit research centers present opportunities to apply theory to specific problems. In such settings, physics graduates often work closely with those who have engineering backgrounds, complementing their more specific training with the physicist’s broader concepts. Other opportunities exist in industrial research and development, including computational applications. Graduates can also go on to careers in business, law or medicine after appropriate graduate work.
The undergraduate degree in physics emphasizes knowledge and awareness of the basic subfields of physics (classical mechanics, electricity and magnetism, quantum mechanics, statistical mechanics and thermo-dynamics); the major principles of physics, their historical development and the roles they play in the various subfields of physics; the interrelations between theory and observation, the role of systematic and random experimental errors and methods used to analyze experimental uncertainty and compare experiment with theory; physical phenomena and experience in the use of basic experimental apparatus and measuring instruments; mathematics sufficient to facilitate the acquisition and application of physical principles; and the importance of physics in other fields such as chemistry, biology, engineering, medicine and in society at large.
In addition, students completing the degree in physics are expected to acquire the ability and skills to apply physical principles to new situations; construct and assemble experimental apparatus, conduct and analyze measurements of physical phenomena, properly analyze experimental uncertainty and make meaningful comparisons between experiment and theory; and communicate results of scientific inquiries verbally and in writing.
Students can choose from one of three plans leading to the Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree. The first plan is designed primarily for students who plan to pursue graduate study in physics or go directly into professional employment. The second plan is intended for students who wish to combine a physics major with other areas such as applied mathematics, applied physics, biophysics, chemical physics, environmental science, history and philosophy of science or medicine. The third plan is a program designed specifically for those who wish to become elementary or secondary school teachers and includes a teaching licensure in cooperation with the School of Education.
A five year concurrent BA/MS is also available.
The graduate program in physics is one of the largest and strongest in the country, and is ranked among the top 20 programs in the nation by the prestigious National Research Council. CU Boulder offers leading research programs in essentially all areas of physics including atomic, molecular and optical physics, condensed matter and materials physics, elementary particle physics, nuclear physics, plasma physics, biophysics, history and philosophy of physics and physics education research. Certain astrophysics fields, chemical physics and geophysics are offered in cooperation with other departments on campus.
Students of physics are encouraged to work in a research laboratory. Such experience is especially useful for students who want to pursue a career in science or engineering. Involvement in laboratory experimentation provides students with knowledge of modern electronic equipment and computerized instrumentation, such as digital circuitry and microprocessors. As a contributing member of a research group, students also get a real sense of the creative processes that are part of modern physics research.
Laboratories and institutes associated with the department include the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA), the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), the Laboratory for Nuclear Physics, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), Biofrontiers, Materials Science and Engineering and the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute (RASEI).
In addition to universityaffiliated physics laboratories, several other research laboratories are located in Boulder: the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). CU Boulder physicists are also involved in the growing number of hightechnology industries located in Boulder.