Undergraduate Student Blog, Speaking of Princeton

Undergraduate Student Blog

Author: Libby Tolman ’15

Norwich, Vermont • Physics View Profile

The Education of a Physics Major

What you can expect if you study physics at Princeton

When I applied to college, I knew I loved physics, but I didn't know much about what being a physics major entailed. So that you are more informed, I've created a summary of the physics classes I've taken here so far. They're pretty typical of classes most physics students take.

Freshman Year

Semester 1

  • Physics 105, Advanced Physics (Mechanics): 105 is the highest of three levels of introductory physics offered at Princeton. The class teaches you the basics of physics, starting from kinematics and Newton's laws, but the pace is fast and the problems are hard. Luckily, there's lots of support. I met one of my good friends, Morgan, in 105, and we bonded quickly in problem sessions led by an awesome graduate student named Aris. Aris is great at explaining physics in an accessible way, and I've been lucky enough to have him TA four of the classes I've taken at Princeton.

Semester 2

  • Physics 106, Advanced Physics (Electromagnetism):  This was my favorite class at Princeton. I was really nervous about taking it because my high school physics class didn't cover electromagnetism, and I was therefore out of place in a class populated by students who had taken AP Physics C E&M. But 106's textbook, Purcell, was beautiful and made studying lots a fun experience. 

Sophomore Year

Semester 1

  • Physics 205, "Death Mech":  Physics sophomores choose between two classes, 205 and 207. They have official names, but everyone calls them "Death Mech" and "Baby Death Mech," respectively. I ambitiously elected to take Death Mech, and spent most of my semester on Lagrangian mechanics problem sets that could be as long as 30 hours. I questioned the wisdom of my decision many times during the semester, but ultimately Death Mech gave me greater facility with physics problems that require long calculations to solve. And I'm happy to report that not a single member of my class died.

Semester 2

  • Physics 208, Principles of Quantum Mechanics: This is Princeton's introductory quantum mechanics class, and like all introductory quantum mechanics classes, it's a huge shock to most students. Up until this point, we had been dealing with concrete objects like balls, ropes, wires and pendulums. Now, suddenly, we had to work with something called a "wavefunction" and we weren't exactly sure what this was. Our professor's philosophy was that comfort would come with practice, so this was another class of very long problem sets.
  • Astrophysics 309, Science and Technology of Nuclear Fission and Fusion:  309's professor is Robert Goldston, who is one of the many reasons you should come to Princeton. Professor Goldston used to be the head of PPPL, so he's a very, very good physicist. But he's also a friendly, helpful man who made classes very fun.

Junior Year

Semester 1

  • Physics 301, Thermal Physics: Thermal is probably my second-favorite class to date. Many of the calculations in thermal physics were simpler than calculations in other classes, but the physical concepts they treated were deep and beautiful.
  • Physics 305, Introduction to Quantum Theory: The goal of this class is to firm up any concepts that might be unclear after the whirlwind Physics 208, and to touch on more advanced topics in quantum mechanics. A highlight of the class was our professor, William Happer, comparing the variational method to trying on a pair of pants.
  • First Junior Paper: All physics juniors complete two junior papers (JPs), which are written works that cover the background of an area of current physics research and also include a small independent investigation. My first JP was advised by Professor Nathaniel Fisch. It considered the best way to place the antennas that launch lower hybrid waves in tokamaks.

Semester 2 

  • Physics 304, Advanced Electromagnetism: 304 follows up on 106 by giving electromagnetism a more rigorous mathematical description. This class was notable for me because its professor was my first female physics instructor ever, the wonderful Suzanne Staggs.
  • Physics 312, Experimental Physics: 312 gave the physics majors a chance to see how the theories we study in class play out in the lab. My labs included investigations of spin echo, positron annihilation and optical pumping.
  • Physics 405, Modern Physics 1: Condensed Matter Physics: 405's professor, Jason Petta, is an intense man; he once challenged the class to a bench press competition, but nobody dared to meet the challenge. He is charismatic and enthusiastic about teaching, and this made class rewarding. My favorite topic was superconductivity.
  • Second Junior Paper: My second JP was with Herman Verlinde; we investigated the behavior of entropy in the Unruh effect. I really liked working with Professor Verlinde because of his accessible nature and creative approach to physics, so I decided to work with him on my thesis as well. (More about that next!)

Senior Year 

Semester 1

  • Physics 509, Quantum Field Theory: I took this class because Professor Verlinde teaches it, and it has become my favorite class this semester. Quantum field theory is rather abstract, but think of modeling fields as harmonic oscillators (basically springs), and seeing what this description can tell us about how fields and particles interact and behave. This is a graduate class, but several undergraduates are enrolled, and we typically work together.
  • Astrophysics 551, General Plasma Physics I: 551 is also a graduate class, and is taught by my other JP adviser, Nathaniel Fisch. It covers all the basics of plasma physics (particle drifts, debye shielding, adiabatic invariants, plasma waves, etc.) at a deep level.
  • Thesis: My thesis is with Professor Verlinde, my second JP adviser. We're studying the equations that describe plasmas around black holes, which is an awesome topic because it combines his area of expertise (black holes) with one of my major interests (plasmas).

Semester 2

  • ???: I don't know yet what I'm taking next semester  I know I'll be working a lot on my thesis, and I might also try out a class taught by Professor Polyakov, who is rumored to be the most brilliant physicist at Princeton.  My last semester might also be a good time to take non-scientific classes, since after I graduate I'll likely be going to graduate school, where I will take lots more physics classes!