There’s a physics or astronomy course for any student at Amherst. If you’re eager for an in-depth look at space, time, and motion, you could start with The Newtonian Synthesis (PHYS 123). Those seeking a survey course with little in the way of prerequisites could look at Exploring the Cosmos (ASTR 111), Alien Worlds (ASTR 112), or Energy (PHYS 109). Astronomers often deal with large data sets; those interested in data analysis and programming could join Practical Astronomy (ASTR 200). Students interested in physics en route to medical school will want to look into Introductory Physics I and II as well as Oscillations and Waves (PHYS 116, 117, 125). PHYS 116 and 117 are offered every semester.

Placement advice

Most students considering a major in Physics or Astronomy should start with The Newtonian Synthesis (PHYS 123), which is only offered in the fall. If you have already taken a calculus-based mechanics course and received a 5 on the AP Physics C Mechanics exam, you should place out of PHYS 123 and take Oscillations and Waves (PHYS 125).* If you have taken a calculus-based mechanics course but do not have AP credit, you should take our placement exam. The placement exam covers Newton’s laws of motion, work and energy, momentum, rotation, gravitation, and oscillation. It is a 90-minute take-home test that can be picked up outside the department office during orientation. Tests must be returned by the Monday before the first day of class. The chair will contact students with results by email. If you have scores from IB Higher-Level or comparable exams, you should take the placement exam.

*In Fall 2017, we are not offering PHYS 125. You may want to take Methods of Theoretical Physics (PHYS 227), Modern Physics (PHYS 225), or an introductory astronomy course (ASTR 111 or 112).

Math preparation

Physics and Astronomy make thorough use of the calculus. The Astronomy major requires MATH 111 and 121. The Physics major requires these and MATH 211. If you are placed in MATH 105/106 or 111, you should complete this before taking PHYS 123. If you are placed in MATH 121, you should take it at the same time as PHYS 123, since MATH 121 is a prerequisite for PHYS 124. If you are placed into MATH 211, you should take it in your first two years – earlier if you plan to take more math courses.

Students who do not plan to major in Physics or Astronomy can take either PHYS 116 (offered both semesters) or PHYS 123 (fall only). Both satisfy the requirements for medical school. (Both also satisfy the requirements for the majors.) If the student has a background sufficient to place out of PHYS 116/123, they should discuss with their advisor or the department chair whether Introductory Physics II: Electromagnetism and Optics (PHYS 117) or Oscillations and Waves (PHYS 125) would be appropriate.