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College of Letters & Science


Requirements for the Major
Undergraduate Colloquium
University Physical Society
Physics Mentor Program
Other Programs
Non-L&S Students Earning a Physics Major
Honors in the Major
Thesis of Distinction
Distinction in the Major
Introductory Courses
Recommended Program for Majors
Certificate in Physics

2320 Chamberlin Hall, 1150 University Avenue, Madison, WI 53706; 608-262-4526; www.physics.wisc.edu

Professors Balantekin, Barger, Carlsmith, Chubukov, Coppersmith, Dasu, Eriksson, Forest, Gilbert, Halzen, Himpsel, Joynt, Karle, Lawler, Lin, McCammon, Onellion, Ramsey-Musolf, Rzchowski, Saffman Schnack, Shiu, W. Smith, Terry, Timbie, Walker, Winokur, Wu, Zweibel; Associate Professors Boldyrev, Chung, Everett, Hashimoto, Heeger, Herndon, McDermott, Pan, Westerhoff, Yavuz; Assistant Professors Maruyama, Mellado, Perkins, Vavilov

Undergraduate advisors in the major: See the department office for a current listing of undergraduate advisors.

Faculty diversity liaison: Dan McCammon, mccammon@wisp.physics.wisc.edu

The physics curriculum is intended to provide a broad and thorough understanding of the fundamental properties and interactions underlying physical phenomena (including mechanical behaviors, electrical and magnetic sources and interactions, light and optics, heat, relativity of space time, quantum mechanics, atomic and nuclear structure, solid state matter, etc). Many students who major in physics as undergraduates enter graduate schools for work leading to the M.S. or Ph.D. degrees. Others seek employment in a wide range of fields in government, business, and industry. Since current research, both pure and applied, involves interdisciplinary efforts, the broad training of physics with its stress on fundamentals proves to be a valuable experience.

Requirements for the Major

Students with an interest in physics should obtain a copy of the Physics Majors Handbook from the department. Along with a variety of invaluable information, it provides a detailed description of the requirements and options available. It is important for prospective majors to discuss plans and curriculum with a physics advisor and/or mentor as early as possible.

Forms for declaring a physics major are available in the department office, 2320 Chamberlin Hall. To be accepted as a physics major, a student must have a minimum grade point average of 2.5 in university mathematics and physics taken in the first semester of study.

The requirement is a total of 35 credits. The 35 credits must include:

1. Introductory Requirement

a. 247 (5 cr) and 248 (5 cr) and 249* (4 cr), the physics major track, strongly recommended for physics majors; or

b. 207 and 208 (5 cr each), and 241 (3 cr) (or 205 [3 cr] or 235 [3 cr] or 244 [3 cr]); or

c. 201 and 202 (5 cr each), and 205 (3 cr) or 235 (3 cr) or 241 (3 cr) or 244 (3 cr)

Two semesters of EMA (EMA 201 and EMA 202) or (EMA 201 and ME 240) may be substituted for First Semester Introductory Physics (201 or 207), and together count for 5 credits toward the physics major.

While it is strongly recommended that one of the three introductory sequences is followed, any combination of the first, second, and third courses is permitted except that transfers into the 247/248/249 sequence are not allowed. Only one course at each level will count toward the physics major.

*Note: Students registering for 249 are required to register concurrently for 307 lab (2 cr).

2. Core Requirement

All physics majors must take 311 (3 cr) and 322 (3 cr)

Three semesters of Electromagnetism (ECE 220 and ECE 320 and ECE 420) may be substituted for Physics 322, and together count for 3 credits. There is no physics credit for these courses if students take Physics 322, nor for partial completion of the sequence.

3. Laboratory Requirement

All physics majors must take 6 credits of intermediate and/or advanced lab. This requirement can be satisfied by any combination of 307 (2 cr), 308 (2 cr), 407 (2 or 4 cr), 321 (2 lab cr), 623 (2 lab cr), or 625 (2 lab cr).

Note: Non-course research experience is invaluable and vert strongly encouraged, but seldom offers exposure to the breadth of experimental techniques covered in Physics 407. Lab course credit for such experience will be granted only in exceptional circumstances.

Non-physics lab courses may be substituted for lab course credit, if approved in advance by an advisor in the department and an instructor of Physics 407 as covering substantially the same breadth and depth of experience as one of the physics lab courses. This is of particular interest to science and engineering students contemplating a second major in physics.

The following engineering courses are automatically approved for lab credit as shown, but no more than 6 credits from this list can be counted toward the 35 credits of physics courses.

NE 427 (2 cr)
NE 428 (2 cr)
ECE 305 (1 cr)
ECE 313 (1 cr)

In addition, ECE 376 can be counted for 3 credits, including 1 credit of intermediate lab. There is no physics credit for ECE 376 if the student has taken Physics 321.

4. Elective Requirement

The remaining credits to total 35 must be from advanced-level physics courses (see “Level” designation in the course description), or Physics 301. The physics department suggests that the student's program include the seminar Physics Today (301). A strong foundation in basic physics would include wave motion/optics (325), atomic and quantum physics (448 and 449, or 531) and thermal physics (415). Those considering graduate study in physics should take 448 and 449. 

Important Note about Requirements

Students who have taken any of Physics 307, 308, 407 before spring 2011 should have the physics major declaration dated before August 1, 2011. The form can be backdated if necessary. Anyone with a declaration date July 31, 2011, or earlier will graduate under the old requirements for the physics major: 32 credits of physics, including 2 credits of intermediate/advanced lab (or 3 credits if they have taken Physics 249), but will receive only the old number of credits toward the major requirements for any of these courses, regardless of when they were taken. Note that this means students graduating under the old system must register for 4 credits of Physics 407 to receive 2 old credits, and that Physics 307 or 308 will count only 1 credit each. Physics 321, 623, and 625 will count only 1 lab credit each. All credits will count as taken for requirements outside the physics major.

Note that the university has additional requirements on residency and minimum GPA for graduation. All students must fulfill the L&S requirement of 15 credits of upper-level work in the major taken in residence. All courses used to meet the core, laboratory, and elective requirements for the major count toward this requirement if taken in residence.

Physics majors should obtain approval of their program from an undergraduate advisor. Advice on the choice of nonphysics electives is found in the Physics Majors Handbook, available from the department office or online.

Undergraduate Colloquium

There is a weekly series of talks in the spring semester called "Physics Today," at which a topic of local research is described by one of the physics faculty. These are open and may be attended by anyone. They can also be taken as a course, Physics 301. See the Course Guide for location and time.

University Physical Society

This group arranges events such as speakers, tours, and trips, runs a volunteer tutoring program, and has study sessions for all the advanced courses. They also have a nifty clubroom with computers, email and a library. Membership is strongly recommended, and members do not have to be a physics majors to join. For more information, stop by room 2328 Chamberlin Hall or see the society website.

Physics Mentor Program

Any student contemplating becoming a physics major is encouraged to obtain a faculty mentor. A mentor is a faculty member with whom students can discuss physics, courses, careers, graduate schools, aspirations, etc. Mentors are not primarily academic advisors. Information is available at the department office.

Other Programs

A program in applied mathematics, engineering and physics (AMEP) is described in its own section of this catalog.

Students interested in an astronomy–physics major should contact the astronomy department.

A student working toward the Bachelor of Science–Education degree may major or minor in physics. Interested students should contact the School of Education. Upon request, the physics department will assign an advisor.

A suggested curriculum for students interested in graduate study in medical physics is available in the medical physics department office.

Non-L&S Students Earning a Physics Major

Students earning an undergraduate degree through another UW–Madison school or college may complete an additional major in physics. Such students complete the major requirements detailed above. See "The Physics Major" section of the Physics Majors Handbook for preapproved alternative courses that may be of use.

Note: Non-L&S students must obtain a formal approval from their advisor and dean before attempting to declare an additional major in physics.

Honors in the Major

To earn the B.A. or B.S. with Honors in the Major, majors in physics must complete (a) the L&S general degree requirements, and (b) present 38 credits in physics courses with a minimum GPA of 3.3.

The 38 credits must include these six groups:

  1. Introductory Requirement: same as general physics major
  2. Core Requirement: same as general physics major
  3. Laboratory Requirement: same as general physics major
  4. Advanced Requirement: Student must complete 448 and 449
  5. Senior Thesis Requirement: Students must complete Physics 681 and 682 for 3 credits each and submit a suitable senior thesis document. Students will need to find a physics faculty thesis advisor and discuss a suitable project well in advance of attempting to register for Physics 681.
  6. Elective Requirement: The remaining credits to total 38 must be from advanced-level physics courses (see “Level” designation in the course description), or Physics 301. The physics department suggests that the student's program include the seminar on Physics Today (301). A strong foundation in basic physics would include wave motion/optics (325) and thermal physics (415).

Thesis of Distinction

An exceptional original thesis will be designated as a Thesis of Distinction upon recommendation by the department.

Distinction in the Major

The award "Distinction in the Major" will be recommended by the department to the dean for students who substitute elective physics credits for the thesis.

Introductory Courses

The Department of Physics offers several introductory courses that differ in emphasis and mathematical prerequisites, and are designed for students with different backgrounds, interests, and needs. Students should take the highest level introductory course for which they have the prerequisites.

Physics 107 and 109 are one-semester courses intended for nonscience majors, and are devoted to bridging the gap between the "two cultures," letters and science, with a minimum of mathematics and technical terminology. Physics 115 is a one-semester introduction focusing on the single concept of energy. It is intended for students with no previous college physics and minimal mathematical preparation. These courses are not appropriate for science majors, and they do not satisfy the admission requirements of the School of Medicine and Public Health.

Physics 103–104 is a two-semester general physics course taught without calculus. This sequence is intended for students who have had high school algebra, geometry, and basic trigonometry, and provides a general introduction to physics at the non-calculus level.

There are three introductory course sequences at the calculus level—Physics 201–202, 207–208, and 247–248–249. Physics 201–202 is taken primarily by engineering students. Physics 207–208 is taken primarily by science or math majors. Both 201–202 and 207–208 cover the same material except for an introduction to modern physics which is covered only in 208. For those planning to major in physics, the preferred introductory sequence is 247–248–249. Alternatively, 201–202 or 207–208 followed preferably by 241 (or 205, 235, or 244) can be used to start the physics major. All three sequences provide roughly the same background.

Completion of either 201–202 or 207–208 is a prerequisite for 205, 235, 241, or 244, and most courses numbered above 300. Physics 103–104 plus a course in calculus may be substituted with permission. Physics 247–248–249 also serves as a prerequisite for courses above 300.

Physics 265 (Medical Physics) is a one-semester course concerned with the application of physics to medicine and medical instrumentation, primarily for premeds and other students in the medical and biological sciences.

Physics 371 Acoustics for Musicians is a one-semester course concerned with the physics of waves and sound, for advanced students of music.

Recommended Program for Majors

The appropriate program for a student's goals should be established with the help of the advisor. The introductory program consists of Physics 247–248–249/307. Students are encouraged to take this sequence. Note, however, that Physics 247 is offered only in the fall semester. Alternatively, 207–208–241 or 201–202–241 may be substituted (Physics 205 or 235 or 244 are acceptable alternatives to 241). The remainder of the program is 311 and 322 plus intermediate or advanced laboratory chosen from Physics 307, 308, 407, 321, 623, or 625 (see above) plus advanced electives. Math 221–222–223 or equivalents are necessary since they are prerequisites for other courses. It is possible to enter the program in either semester since 201, 202, 207, 208, 235, 241, 311, and 322 are offered each semester. Students are urged to start the recommended sequence of courses as soon as they have the calculus prerequisite (Math 221 or equivalent). However, no serious obstacle is met if the student does not begin until the sophomore year. Students who enter with some preparation in calculus may start the suggested sequence of physics courses in the first semester of their freshman year.

Freshman Year—First Semester

247 A Modern Introduction to Physics (5 cr) , Math 222 (5 cr)

The recommended introductory sequence is 247–248–249. Alternatively, students may choose the 207–208, 241 sequence. Students who enter without preparation in calculus should see the alternative programs listed in the Physics Majors Handbook.

Second Semester

248 A Modern Introduction to Physics (5 cr)
Math 234 (3 cr)

Sophomore Year—First Semester

249 A Modern Introduction to Physics (4 cr)
307 Intermediate Lab (2 cr) Math 319 or Math 320 (3 cr)

Second Semester

308 Intermediate Lab (2 cr)
311 Mechanics (3 cr)
301 Physics Today (1 cr) Math 321 (3 cr)

Junior Year—First Semester

322 Electromagnetic Fields (3 cr) Math 322 (3 cr), Math 340 (3 cr)

Second Semester

325 Wave Motion and Optics (3 cr)
407 Advanced Lab (2 or 4 cr)

Senior Year—First Semester

415 Thermal Physics (3 cr)
448 Atomic and Quantum Physics (3 cr)

Second Semester

449 Atomic and Quantum Physics (3 cr)

Students who wish to begin graduate studies without deficiencies are advised to adhere closely to this program.


The senior year could include electives, such as:
522 Advanced Classical Physics
525 Introduction to Plasmas
535 Introduction to Particle Physics
545 Introduction to Atomic Structure
546 Lasers
551 Solid State Physics
623 Electronic Aids to Measurement
625 Applied Optics

Students who plan to teach in secondary schools or seek employment in government or industrial laboratories may wish to replace the courses suggested for the senior year by Physics 531 and more specialized courses chosen from the electives listed above.

Students are also encouraged to take all three of the laboratory courses (307, 308, 407) if possible, although not all are required. The 307, 308 labs teach the fundamentals of lab technique and provide experience with material covered in the lecture courses. The 407 lab, however, gives a broader exposure to sophisticated instruments and measurement techniques.


Courses in mathematics or computer sciences other than or beyond those suggested should be chosen in consultation with the student's advisor.


A college course in chemistry is advised for all physics students.


Students should become familiar with scientific programming using a language such as C or FORTRAN.

The computer sciences department offers introductory courses (such as 302). The Division of Information Technology (DoIT) also offers short courses to introduce programming.

Certificate in Physics

The department offers an undergraduate certificate in physics. An understanding of the physical universe informs many disciplines. The study of physics is essential to understanding nature and to advancing technology in the coming century. A certificate in physics increases the opportunities for students to become better informed on technological issues at the local, state, national, and international levels.

The certificate (18 credits) is designed to serve undergraduates majoring in biology, chemistry, mathematics, engineering, education and other fields who wish to extend their study of physics beyond what may be required or recommended for their major without completing the full L&S physics major requirements (35 credits including 26 intermediate/advanced lab credits).

To earn a certificate in physics, a student must complete at least 18 credits in physics courses numbered 200 or higher. Graduate-level courses are permitted. No more than 3 credits of independent study may be used to satisfy this requirement. Transfer or AP credit for 200-level introductory physics is acceptable for meeting the requirements of the certificate. EMA 201 and EMA 202 or EMA 201 and ME 240 may be substitutd for Physics 201 and count for 5 credits. Otherwise, only courses within the department (or crosslisted with physics) are acceptable.

  1. All undergraduates and Special students are eligible; only physics majors are not eligible.
  2. The certificate will be awarded upon completion of requirements.
  3. At least 9 of the credits must be in residence.
  4. Only graded courses may be used toward the certificate.
  5. A minimum grade of C is required for each course used toward the certificate.

Note: L&S students wishing to declare or cancel an L&S physics major or certificate should stop in the physics department main office at 2320 Chamberlin Hall to pick up a form.