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College of Letters & Science


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

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

Professors Balantekin, Barger, Boldyrev, Carlsmith, Chung, Coppersmith, Dasu, Eriksson, Everett, Forest, Gilbert, Halzen, Hanson, Hashimoto, Herndon, Joynt, Karle, Lawler, Lin, McCammon, McDermott, Onellion, Rzchowski, Saffman, Sarff, Shiu, Smith, Terry, Timbie, Vavilov, Walker, Westerhoff, Winokur, Wu, Yavuz, Zweibel; Associate Professors Egedal, Pan; Assistant Professors Arnold, Bai, Brar, Levchenko, Palladino, Vandenbroucke

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

To be admitted to the physics major, a student must have a minimum grade point average of 2.500 in mathematics and physics courses taken at UW–Madison at the time of declaration. A physics major can be declared after completing at least one physics course at UW–Madison that counts toward the major.

The physics major requires 35 credits from the following:


First Introductory Course: Physics 247 (recommended) or 207 or 201 or (EMA 201 and either EMA 202 or ME 240)
Second Introductory Course: Physics 248 (recommended) or 208 or 202
Third Introductory Course: Physics 249 (recommended) or 205 or 235 or 241 or 244

Notes: A maximum of 5 credits from EMA 201, EMA 202 and ME 240 count toward the 35 required. It is recommended that students follow one of the sequences 247–248, 207–208, or 201–202 for the first two courses, and 249 or 241 is strongly recommended for the third course. But any combination can be used to satisfy the requirements, except that students may not transfer into the 247–248–249 sequence from another introductory sequence.


Mechanics: Physics 311
Electromagnetic Fields: Physics 322 or (ECE 220, 320 and 420)
Thermal Physics: Physics 415 or (Chem 561 and 562) or M E 361
Quantum Physics: Physics (448 and 449 [recommended]) or 531

Note: A maximum of 3 credits from Chem 561 and 562 apply toward the 35 required. A maximum of 3 credits from ECE 220 and ECE 320 and ECE 420 apply toward the 35 required.

LABORATORY: 6 credits from

Full registered credit per course: Physics 307, 308, 407 Two credits applies for each of these courses: Physics 321, 623, 625, NE 427, 428 One credit applies for each of these courses: ECE 305, 313

Note: For non-physics courses, students will receive only the credit applied as lab toward the 35 credits requirement.

ADVANCED PHYSICS ELECTIVES to achieve 35 credits for the major.

2.000 GPA in all major and major subject (physics) courses
2.000 on at least 15 credits in upper-level work, in residence: courses in Core, Laboratory, and Advanced Physics Electives
15 credits in the major subject, taken on campus

Honors in the Major

Students may declare Honors in this Major in consultation with their major advisor. To earn Honors in the Major, students must complete the standard major (above) plus meet these additional requirements:

3.300 university GPA
3.300 GPA in all major and major subject (physics) courses
Senior Honors Thesis: Physics 681–682 for 6 credits
12 honors credits in courses used to satisfy the requirements, with at least 9 at the advanced level

Distinction in the Major

Distinction in the Major requires no declaration, and is awarded at the time of graduation. Students may not receive Distinction and Honors in the same major. To receive Distinction in the Major, students must have met the following requirements:

3.300 University GPA
3.300 GPA in all major and major subject (physics) courses
6 additional credits in advanced-level physics beyond the minimum required for the major.

Thesis of Distinction

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

Requirements for the Certificate

The physics certificate requires 18 credits of undergraduate physics courses numbered 200 and higher with the following restrictions:

Maximum 1 First Introductory Course: Physics  247 (recommended), 207, 201, EMA 201 and (EMA 202 or ME 240)
Notes: A maximum of 5 credits from EMA 201, EMA 202 and ME 240 count toward the 18 required. Students may not transfer into the 247–248–249 sequence from another introductory sequence.

Maximum 1 Second Introductory Course: Physics 248 (recommended), 208, 202
Maximum 1 Third Introductory Course: Physics 249 (recommended), 205, 235, 241, 244
Maximum 3 credits of Physics Directed Study: Physics 298, 299, 498, 499


2.000 in physics and certificate coursework
9 credits of certificate coursework in residence

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.

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

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.

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.

This page was revised 12/9/15.