Physics Core Requirements

Physics Core Requirements

Physics in the Core Curriculum 

Several physics courses satisfy the physical sciences Core Curriculum requirement.  These are Physics and Technology (PHY2303/PHY2103), Introductory Astronomy (2302/2102), General Physics I (PHY2311 & PHY2111 or PHY2305 & PHY2105), and General Physics II (PHY2312 & PHY2112 or PHY2306 & PHY2106).  Students who take these courses should

  1. be able to discuss intelligently the defining characteristics of the scientific mode of inquiry;
  2. understand what constitutes knowledge in science;
  3. have acquired a small but significant body of knowledge which provides a basis for understanding the fundamental physical aspects of our world;
  4. be able to use fundamental scientific principles in order to provide conceptual explanations of observable phenomena;
  5. understand the development of at least one major scientific principle illustrating the role of discovery, logical reasoning, and creativity on the part of scientists;
  6. have gained hands-on knowledge of empirical components of science as it emerges from the student's performing and designing of laboratory experiments which include making observations, forming and testing hypotheses, using quantitative techniques (such as graphics), and developing logical conclusions;
  7. be able to discuss intelligently the pros and cons of how science and scientific discoveries are used in our society.

Physics Department Core Curriculum Philosophy

A liberal arts education has long been essential for those considered knowledgeable enough to participate in civic discourse. Knowledge of the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) of the ancient Greeks and Romans and its extension to the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) in medieval times distinguished those considered to be learned from others and elevated their importance in their communities. This idea of a well-educated citizen has become in today’s parlance the global citizen, or someone with a mastery of a wide range of topics and one who can contribute to conversations that increasingly involve peoples from around the world. The liberal arts education at its best, however, encompasses more than the acquiring of “useful” knowledge and skills and the ability of one to communicate well what one knows. Another major goal of such an education is to develop life-long learners—those who continue always to thirst for knowledge and who can adapt because of this knowledge to changes that occur in their families, jobs, churches, communities, countries, and world. Science in general and physics in particular are important components of the global citizen’s repertoire, as those who make decisions increasingly must be aware of scientific studies, technology, and the ethical implications of their choices. Moreover, the understanding of nature at the most fundamental level is truly liberating to the mind of the life-long learner because it opens up so many pathways to knowledge that are not available to the scientifically illiterate.

Physics is the study of the smallest through the largest objects of our universe. These extremes pique the imagination and our sense of wonder, since who cannot get excited by the idea of a quark or by looking at the planets through a telescope. Great works of literature, poetry, art, and even scholarly articles in business and economics are filled with references to these structures and the interactions they undergo. Obviously knowledge of physics plays an important role in the imagination of others in very diverse fields. Learning for the sake of learning is maximized in science with the study of physics, as no other subject has such an overlap with philosophy, nor represents the search for scientific truth at the most fundamental level.

Physics is an experimental science which means its accepted body of knowledge is based on evidence that is verifiable and reproducible. It is also a field that is very quantitative in nature and has mathematics as its recognized universal language. This makes the field of physics very global at its foundation and compels physicists to be ambassadors in many ways. The body of accepted physical thought is driven not only by experiments, but also by theory, as the value to predict is so fundamentally important to an accepted general theory. In our Core offerings we attempt to relate to students the importance of both theory and experiment and the importance of the universal language of mathematics to both.

The role of physics and astronomy in our students’ education, however, is far more significant than the content knowledge that students gain through their study of these fields. Equally important to physics and astronomy content acquisition for the development of the well-educated person is that students gain knowledge and understanding of the scientific process. How is a scientific theory developed? Can the students use deductive reasoning to explain physical phenomena? Can they model complex systems that do not have closed solutions? The experimental component of our Core offerings helps students acquire an understanding of the importance of experimentation, reproducibility, deduction and modeling in the development of physical theories. Our laboratories and research projects empower students to analyze data and reach sound conclusions. How are scientific theories accepted? The role of peer-review in the acceptance of any scientific research is important and limits what is considered “science” and must be part of the science literacy discussion. What are the limits of science? Einstein’s famous quote, “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong” is often used to stress that scientific theories are only as good as the experimental evidence that supports them. Moreover, the excitement of scientific revolution—those rare times when accepted theories are found to be insufficient to explain physical observations—must be conveyed to students to realize that scientists not only accept the limitations of their theories, but relish the times when important theories are overturned or at least significantly challenged.

Physics contributes to and strengthens the Core Curriculum but the physics faculty realize, and tries to convey to its students, that the contribution and strengthening of one’s knowledge are not one way conveyances; rather, we fully acknowledge that the Core contributes to physics. The power of imagination to the successful scientist is made stronger when supported by contributions of creativity and vision learned from the humanities. Would quarks be called quarks without Murray Gell Mann’s knowledge of Finnegan’s Wake? The importance of humanities in the education of scientists is broadly realized; for example, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has published a list of ten ways in which the study of humanities strengthens a scientific career1. The list contains the obvious improvement of writing and communication but extends well beyond such important skills. Items such as “the study of the humanities allows you to become familiar with and use the creative ideas from great minds outside of science” and “humanities study teaches you that the supposedly sharp dichotomies that separate science from humanities do not really exist” are included in the list. Moreover, the distinct walls of the disciplines are realized rather broadly to limit ones thought and should be knocked down by the educated physicist. It is our hope that our graduates can leave campus and continue discussions throughout their lives that transcend the boundaries of disciplines and that their liberal arts education helps them be happier and more successful physicists.