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Physics and Astronomy




110 Observing the Sky

This course will introduce students to how to observe and understand a variety of phenomena in the daytime and nighttime sky. The lecture portion of the course will focus on the history of our understanding of the universe and how observations of celestial phenomena provided clues at each stage of this journey, which continues to this day. The nighttime laboratory portion of the course will focus on naked-eye, telescopic, and photographic observations of the sky. The course will make use of Amherst’s on-campus observatory on the roof of the new science center. 

Limited to 36 students, divided into two sections, with 24 seats reserved for first-year students. Omitted 2022-23. 

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2020

112 Alien Worlds

How did our solar system form? Are planets like Earth typical or rare? When, where, and how might we find life elsewhere in the universe? This course will provide an introduction to the formation and evolution of solar systems, including an exploration of the geology, chemistry and biology of the planets in our own solar system. We will discuss the origins, successes and limitations of techniques being used to discover planets around other stars (exoplanets), and the nature of planetary habitability. Our investigations will focus on understanding proportionalities, relative sizes, and visual representations of data, as well as evaluating the reasonableness of quantitative answers rather than on lengthy calculations.

Limited to 45 students (25 spots reserved for first-year students). Preference to first-year students and seniors. Omitted 2022-23.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2015, Fall 2017, Fall 2018, Fall 2019

499 Senior Departmental Honors

Opportunities for theoretical and observational work on the frontiers of science are available in cosmology, cosmogony, radio astronomy, planetary atmospheres, relativistic astrophysics, laboratory astrophysics, gravitational theory, infrared balloon astronomy, stellar astrophysics, spectroscopy, and exobiology. Facilities include the Five College Radio Astronomy Observatory, the Laboratory for Infrared Astrophysics, balloon astronomy equipment (16-inch telescope, cryogenic detectors), and modern 24- and 16-inch Cassegrain reflectors. An Honors candidate must submit an acceptable thesis and pass an oral examination. The oral examination will consider the subject matter of the thesis and other areas of astronomy specifically discussed in Astronomy courses.

Open to seniors. Required of Honors students. 2022-2023vSpring semester. The Department.

2022-23: Offered in Spring 2023
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2009, Spring 2010, Spring 2011, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Spring 2016, Spring 2017, Spring 2018, Spring 2019, Spring 2020, Spring 2021, Spring 2022


102 Geometry and Relativity

(Offered as PHYS 102 and MATH 102) On January 27th, 1921, Albert Einstein gave a lecture titled “Geometry and Experience" at the Prussian Academy of Science. In this lecture he reflects on the interdependence of geometry and physics. To commemorate the centenary of such an inspiring event, this course will explore the natural connections between geometry (axioms, the notions of space and time, dimension and curvature) and relativity (the relativity principle, simultaneity, thought experiments). No background in physics or mathematics (besides basic high school algebra and trigonometry) will be assumed. The course is designed for students who do not intend to major in mathematics or physics.  Omitted 2022-23. Professor Jagannathan.    

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2021

108 Science and Music

(Offered as MUSI 108 and PHYS 108) Appreciating music requires no special scientific or mathematical ability. Yet science and mathematics have a lot to tell us about how we make music and build instruments, what we consider harmonious, and how music is processed by the ear and brain. This course will delve into the fundamentals of music theory, perceptual psychology, and physics in exploring such topics as scales and tunings, the physical properties of sound, Fourier analysis, organizing principles of musical forms, fundamentals of instrument construction, vocal sound production, and elements of sound recording and music production. We will consider ways in which science can be part of the creative process as well as the role creativity plays in scientific discovery. The course will include laboratories during the usual class times that cover a variety of topics ranging from basic acoustics to the formants of vowel sounds. The semester will culminate in an artistic or scientific project located at the crossroads of music and science. No background in music or physics is required. Students are expected to be well versed in high-school-level mathematics, but no knowledge of calculus will be assumed.

Spring semester. Limited to 20 students. Professors Sawyer and Friedman

2022-23: Offered in Spring 2023
Other years: Offered in Spring 2022

109 Energy

We will develop the concept of energy from a Physics perspective. We will introduce the various forms that energy can take and discuss the mechanisms by which it can be generated, transmitted, and transformed. The law of conservation of energy will be introduced both as a useful tool, and as an example of a fundamental physical law. The environmental and financial costs and benefits of various methods of energy generation and consumption will be discussed. Demonstrations and hands-on laboratory experiences will be an integral part of the course. The course is intended for non-science majors and not for students who have either completed or intend to complete the equivalent of PHYS 117 or CHEM 110.

The course is designed as an in-person course with active lab work.

Requisite: A working knowledge of high-school algebra, geometry and trigonometry. Limited to 20 students. Omitted 2022-23. Professor Hunter.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Spring 2008, Spring 2009, Spring 2010, Spring 2011, Spring 2013, Spring 2014, Spring 2015, Spring 2016, Spring 2017, Spring 2018, Spring 2020

112 Electronics

The aim of the course is to foster an understanding of and intuition for the modern-day electronic devices and circuits that are central to many aspects of our research, work, and play. A practical hands-on approach serves this aim well. After investigating the electrical characteristics of electronic components, including discrete semiconductor devices and integrated circuits (ICs), we go on to build and analyze both analog and digital circuits in order to gain insight into electronic control devices, data acquisition systems, and computers. Brief introductory lecture/discussion periods will be followed by experiments to help students understand new concepts. While the course is elementary, experienced students will be able to explore more complex circuitry and will be encouraged to apply some of their newly developed electronics knowledge and creativity to ongoing research projects in other fields. Two eighty-minute meetings per week of Lecture/Discussion/Laboratory.

Limited to 20 students. Omitted 2022-23. Professor Carter.

2022-23: Not offered
Other years: Offered in Fall 2018